How do we address the STEM pipeline?

First of all, it might be good not to call it that!

I have been to a few events of late on this topic, and hope it will be useful to share some thoughts on the implications of the 2013 ASPIRES report from King’s College London:

The authors challenge a fair few assumptions and make some quite actionable suggestions. For a start, they highlight the problem with the terminology “STEM pipeline.”

“the pervasive ‘science = scientist’ link is detrimental: disrupting the pipeline metaphor may be helpful” — ASPIRES, p.27

Instead they encourage the notion of science as a “springboard”, which develops highly prized transferable skills that can lead to a range of career options beyond scientist, doctor or science teacher. Reading this brought to mind my first visit to a university milk round, where the mere mention of my physics degree led oil company and bank reps to pursue me around the room. I knew when I started my degree that it would open doors.

Yet when I found myself, four years later, suggesting to my sixth form students that physics would be a great option to study at university, I kept hearing a very different refrain: “I need a degree that will get me a job, like medicine or engineering.” A very high proportion of pupils in my school were eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), and I found that their priority when choosing a course was often to ensure that it would lead to a secure and well-paid job. The arts, humanities and ‘pure’ sciences did not feature on their radar as options. Knowing that being a physics graduate does in fact make you attractive to many employers is one of a myriad of bits of knowledge and experience that make up science capital, a measure introduced by the ASPIRE team.

The importance of science capital is highlighted throughout the report.

“Science capital refers to science-related qualifications, understanding, knowledge (about science and ‘how it works’), interest and social contacts (e.g. knowing someone who works in a science-related job).” — ASPIRES, p.3

This animation explains it further, and the Enterprising Science project looks at putting it into practice. My notes below show how important the authors consider it (look at all the stars!) and also list their suggested actions:

Perhaps the most surprising finding for policy makers (if not science teachers!) is that most children and young people enjoy “doing” science. The problem is, they can’t imagine themselves “being” scientists. The writers call it the “being / doing divide”.

Addressing this divide is what drives most of the work that I do as a Scientist / Inventor in Residence at Lab_13 Gillespie. I invite the children to see themselves and each other as scientists. They write down their scientific questions, which we then investigate together in our science lab. We carry out genuine scientific research, write scientific reports and present our findings to the national media. Starting work on this in primary schools, whilst children are developing their identities, is highlighted as a priority by the ASPIRES team. You can see examples of how I create mini-scientists and makers in Lab_13 on our twitter account:

If enjoyment of science lessons alone does not convince them to become scientists, what else motivates young people when choosing careers? From my reading of the ASPIRES report, it appears to boil down to three things: enjoyment, financial security / respect, and benefiting society. These are summarised in my notes as : ), £ and ❤ along with some ideas about how they can be addressed in a science context:

On that last point,

“Young people also appear to be quite altruistic and aspire to a good work-life balance: • 96 per cent agree that it will be important to have time for family • 90 per cent aspire to ‘help others’ in their working lives • 78 per cent want a career that will ‘make a difference in the world’” — ASPIRES, p.10

One more thing to note: the gender of science “role models” is less important than the fact that they are “non-stereotypical.” This is only mentioned in passing in this report, but I have seen it come up a few times elsewhere when reading up on gender and physics uptake. See here and here for more on this.

This surprised me at first, but upon further reflection it did fit in with my own experience. Most of the people who inspired me to study physics were men (because most physicists have historically been and still are men…). Thinking about my tip-top role model Richard Feynman, he was known for not fitting the stereotype, making physics accessible and “for everyone”:

The ASPIRES report also offers a reminder, should teachers need it, that some groups of pupils face more barriers that others:

The factors which hinder students from developing science aspirations are amplified in the case of Black students, due to the multiple inequalities they face. — ASPIRES, p.3

What gives me hope is that, according to the report, there are things we can do to change things for the better.

What to do with all this information as a teacher? I’m a physicist, so I like to take quite a systematic approach to things. Looking at the three motivators : ), £ and ❤, reflecting on the research I have read and considering my own experience, I will keep in mind the following:

  1. : ) Make sure that my students enjoy science. My approach is to model never-ending passion for my subject, to be a bit silly, have fun, and to be unafraid to challenge my pupils. I don’t recommend a diet of ‘whizz-bang’ demos —they’re fun but can detract from the learning, and besides that’s not what science is about. My goal is for my pupils to develop enquiring minds. to enjoy the wonder of discovery, the thrill of intellectual stimulation, and the satisfaction of solving a really tricky problem.
  2. £ Embed case studies / stories / anecdotes about scientists beyond the usual biologist / chemist / physicist / doctor into my lessons -highlight that science is a “springboard” ( is a wonderful resource!). I will keep bringing people in (STEMnet can help with that), take them to places where scientists work (that could include a research institute / bakery / brewery…), share how much scientists and engineers earn, and whilst mine are sadly too young, if you can do so please take your classes to the Royal Society’s excellent Summer Science Exhibition. When pupils demonstrate transferable skills in my lessons, I will keep making this explicit but link it more closely to being a “good scientist” e.g. working well in a team, analysing data, solving problems. The children adore my palaeontologist Lottie doll, I would love to get the astronomer too — and to find some male scientist dolls as well.
  3. ❤ Give your pupils opportunities to explore and appreciate the value of science to society. Debates can be valuable if managed well, but I suspect that small regular examples of how science is helpful might be more effective. Sharing the work of organisations such as Engineers without Borders for instance, and inviting visiting scientists to explain how their work is valuable. Next time I set up a child research team I will get them to consider in depth what value their research might have (even if it’s ‘blue skies’ research!).

Underpinning all of this, I will try not underestimate the influence I can have as a role model in the classroom and around school. The relationships I build with my pupils, the conversations I have with them about careers and the confidence I give them through good teaching will hopefully add up to something significant.

Cheese overload sorry, but this is just too good not to share:

Further reading:

Watch Louise Archer from the Aspires research team explain it herself:

P.S. Your students won’t all want to be scientists. That’s ok. But hopefully they will go through life with some of the awe, wonder and helpful habits of mind that science can bring : )