Science capital can be described as the bag of science-related knowledge, experience and attitudes that you carry throughout life – what you know about science, how you think about science, what you do, and who you know.
This concept is being adopted by a growing number of science engagement organisations and educational policy-makers as a way to (re)think what we might do to improve people’s engagement with science. Our research explains why some students feel unable to identify with science and highlights the need to reflect on how institutions provide experiences that resonate with visitors’ varied personal lives.
The concept of science capital draws from the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who coined the notion of capital – the social, cultural and symbolic resources that individuals variously possess to ‘get on’ in life. Science capital is a form of capital that combines all the science-related social and cultural resources that Bourdieu defined.
By analysing a series of surveys carried out in the UK*, we’ve identified a distinct relationship between a young person’s aspirations towards science and their science capital: just 5 per cent have high science capital and are more likely to continue with science post compulsory schooling; 69 per cent have medium science capital; but more than a quarter (27 per cent) have low science capital – the least likely to take science-related qualifications or a science-related career.
Importantly, the construct of science capital tells us more than who might aspire to a science-related career. It helps us understand why for some young people, science is not for them. It can also help us to think creatively and effectively about what we might do to improve everyone’s engagement with science within our sites and spaces.
TWEAKING SCHOOL SCIENCE
Over the last few years, our research team has worked extensively with teachers and schools to explore ways to build student science capital to support more students, particularly those from diverse backgrounds, to engage with science. By encouraging teachers to spend time reflecting on their practice, and identifying small changes or tweaks to existing lessons, we’ve helped teachers create learning environments and opportunities that build science capital.
We recommend starting from the personal, lived experiences of learners and building upwards. It’s about eliciting the experiences and interests that students already have, valuing these, and then linking these to canonical science.
It’s about encouraging young learners to speak with their family and friends and others in their community about science, showing them how to recognise the science in their everyday lives and to acknowledge the many ways in which they participate in science-related activities. These principles apply within classrooms, but also outside school in other learning spaces and visitor attractions.
SCIENCE CENTRES CAN HELP
For science museums and science centres, our findings from the classroom highlight the need to reflect on the ways in which these institutions provide experiences that resonate with visitors’ varied personal lives – and provide suitable spaces where individuals can build on their existing resources, helping them to fill up their science capital bags.
A science capital approach to museum and science centre practice would include using visitors’ prior experiences for educational programmes, eliciting and valuing their contributions and linking these to science. It might include long-term partnerships with audience groups.
A further valuable role would be to highlight how science can open doors to all sorts of different jobs and careers and demonstrate how it can also lead to active participation in societal decision-making.
By showcasing a wide range of science-related roles and careers, hosting debates and discussions, and encouraging science-related conversations, science museums and science centres can begin to encourage and help visitors of all ages and abilities to build their science capital.
BUILDING SCIENCE CAPITAL
Discussions and applications of science capital are spreading and growing. The British Science Association and Science Museum Group provide practical examples. The concept has also gained interest at a policy level across Europe.
In summary, a science capital approach does not suggest that a lack of awareness or interest explains why students choose not to pursue science or, similarly, why people do not visit science centres or science museums. Rather, it explains why some people feel unable to identify with science: they do not have the resources or experiences that would lead to a more full science capital ‘bag’.
Our findings suggest that future initiatives and policies should aim to build learners’ science capital and reflect on the design of learning experiences. This will ensure that more learners from varied backgrounds, experiences and interests will develop greater science alignment.