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What influences inequalities in STEM participation?

Most young people find science interesting but their engagement is not equal. Inequalities in STEM participation are shaped by many factors.
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There are many reasons why STEM disciplines are important for our society. For instance, STEM plays a key role in addressing crucial global challenges, such as the climate emergency, public health, the security of food and water, and so on. So ensuring that there’s enough current and future scientists and engineers and people with the appropriate knowledge and skills to work in these sectors, is really important. But it’s not the whole picture. Being STEM literate is also highly valuable. People can use STEM knowledge and skills to be active citizens, so making informed choices, for example, about their health and their behaviours, taking action in their lives to help them benefit themselves and others.
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So in other words, STEM literacy is really important for everyone, and ensuring that STEM is open and inclusive is a key part of what’s been termed the Good Society. However, the profile of who participates in STEM, particularly at higher levels, remains narrow and resistant to change. This is particularly seen in the physical sciences and engineering, where participants are more likely to come from socially privileged communities. For example, being male, middle class, able-bodied, and so on. So figures show that in the UK and many Western countries, women and people from low income, lower-income communities, as well as from some racially minoritised communities, remain persistently under-represented. And that stays the same despite decades of initiatives aimed at widening participation in STEM.
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So these patterns are also reflected in the profile of those who tend to participate in out of school, informal science learning opportunities. Research shows that the reasons why some communities are under-represented in STEM aren’t due to any lack of interest or aptitude or motivation on behalf of the communities and individuals in question. Instead, evidence shows that societal inequalities and the everyday practices of STEM, across both in and out of school settings, play a really important role in creating these patterns. So for instance, the ASPIRES study is a survey of over 40,000 young people aged 10 to 18 in England. And this showed that generally, most young people find science interesting. The majority also reported positive views of scientists.
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For example, seeing them as making a positive difference in the world. And they also said that their parents valued STEM. But this interest and these positive views of science didn’t translate into them seeing science as something that’s for me. Instead, over time, their experiences of STEM led the majority of young people to feel excluded from science, despite valuing science and finding it interesting. In particular, many of them came to feel that they weren’t clever enough to do science at higher educational levels. And this is a view that was found even among some of the very highest attaining students.
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So informal STEM learning opportunities tend to be better at reaching and serving young people from more privileged communities even when, as our own work has shown, there’s considerable interest and enthusiasm for STEM among under-represented communities. So what can we do about this? Well, in this course, we’ll be helping you, as an informal STEM learning practitioner, to better understand the causes of these unequal patterns of participation, and it will help you make changes to your practice that can help address these issues and create more inclusive and equitable experiences and learning offers.

In the UK and many Western countries, women and people from lower-income communities, as well as those from some racially minoritised communities, remain persistently under-represented, despite decades of initiatives aimed at widening participation in STEM.

In this video, Louise summarises why STEM participation is such an important topic at a societal and global level. She outlines why unequal participation in STEM is an issue both for schools and for the informal STEM learning sector.

Research shows that most young people find science interesting, have positive views of scientists, and report that their parents value science. But this interest and positive views do not translate into young people seeing science as something that is ‘for me’.

STEM participation is shaped by many factors (explained in more depth in the ASPIRES 2 project report), including:

  • educational factors and practices: schools, teachers and classroom science, educational gatekeeping, and careers education
  • dominant representations of science as ‘masculine’ and ‘clever’
  • capital-related inequalities: science capital, specific inequities and risks, and other capital.

If you’re just getting started with thinking about issues of inequalities, you might find it useful to have a look at the glossary of key terms.

Discussion

If you work in an informal STEM learning organisation, how would you describe your current visitor/participant profile? Please identify and share in the comments some key characteristics of communities that you already tend to reach well and, if relevant, communities that you are keen to engage with more.

If you don’t work in an informal STEM learning organisation, think about an informal STEM learning setting you visited recently. What seemed to be the visitor/participant profile?

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Equity in Informal STEM Learning: Using the Equity Compass

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