Making students keen on science

Gillian Hampden-Thompson looks at what works, and what doesn’t, in raising student enthusiasm for STEM.

Science students looking at molecular structureRarely does a month pass in which policy makers, scientific societies or leaders of industry do not express fears about the low numbers of young people opting for a career related to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). And the UK is not alone in this concern. Many countries across Europe and North America monitor the student uptake of STEM in both compulsory and post-compulsory education.

In the UK, the government set out an ambitious target to increase participation in science and mathematics among the nation’s students in 2004. The Science and Innovation Framework stated that by 2014, the number of students taking A-levels in chemistry, physics, and mathematics should increase. Targets were also set for increased student performance at both KS3 and GCSE.

But while it is widely claimed that an increase in participation and performance in STEM subjects is necessary today to ensure a flow of skilled workers into these fields, the perceived problem of low participation in these subjects is not new. In the UK, the issue has been debated for over forty years since the publication of the Dainton Report in 1968.  However, the perceived mismatch between supply and demand continues to be a pressing concern in the 21st century. There appears to be a growing demand in the economy for graduates who have studied STEM subjects, at a time when participation in at least some of these subjects is declining.

In the past decade or so, a burgeoning number of reports in the UK from governing bodies, examination boards and funding bodies have raised the concern that young people are disaffected towards STEM subjects, and particularly science. Much of this work has focused on student engagement in science and differences in engagement by various student and school factors. But there has been less large-scale research into the connection between teaching and learning activities and student engagement with science. Drawing upon PISA data, I and colleagues at the University of York have looked at whether different approaches to teaching and learning have resulted in greater student engagement in science.

We focused on science teaching and learning activities that encouraged interactions between students, those that enabled various hands-on activities, and others in which the teacher applied concepts to the outside world. We were also interested in the role of practical work. However, we were more interested in whether students were allowed to design and conduct their own investigations than in activities in which the students replicated the experiment previously demonstrated by their teacher.

Our research on around 12,000 15-year-olds in the UK found there is a connection between teaching and learning practices and students’ engagement in science. This was the case for students’ motivation for science, their enjoyment of science, and their future orientation towards it. The greater the frequency of teaching and learning activities that involve interactions, hands-on activities, and application in science, the higher the levels of enjoyment, future orientation and motivation. Interestingly, the same did not apply to teaching and learning activities that involved student investigations. The relationship between increased frequency of student investigations, and student enjoyment and future orientation towards science was a negative one.

In looking at other factors that seemed to be related to student engagement in science, we found that males reported higher levels of engagement than females, and that there was a clear association between student engagement and whether the student had one or more parents in a science-related career. Not surprisingly, students who reported that they expected to go in to a science-related career also reported greater engagement in science.

An important finding is that student engagement in science was impacted by science teacher shortage. Lower levels of engagement were found in schools that reported a shortage of science teachers. However, our findings indicated that there was no connection between student engagement in science and class size, or with the number of science activities such as science fairs that a school organises.

Engagement and participation in STEM subjects is an enduring and complex issue. It is difficult to see that any one solution will raise levels of engagement and, in turn, increase participation in STEM subjects and STEM careers. However, this does not mean that we should not continually evaluate our teaching practices, and the activities we use in the classroom in order to maximise student engagement in science.

Dr Gillian Hampden-Thompson is Director of Research at the Department of Education, University of York, and will become Professor of Education at the University of Sussex in November.

  1. Hampden-Thompson, G., Bennett, J., & Lubben, F. (2011). Post-16 physics and chemistry uptake: combining large-scale secondary analysis with in-depth qualitative methods. International Journal of Research Methods in Education, 34(3), 279–297.
  2. Bennett, J., Lubben, F., & Hampden-Thompson, G. (2013). Schools that make a difference to post-compulsory uptake of physical science subjects: some comparative case studies in England. International Journal of Science Education, 35(4), 663–689.


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