Jonny Berliner - science through song


Opinions and reflections on the dissemination of science from a science troubadour, educator and sci ed researcher.

Can we really expect adolescents to choose STEM?

Despite the best efforts of science teachers and science communicators to inspire the next generation, employers are struggling to fill over 40% of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) vacancies. Because STEM careers are so important to our economy, this shortage has been the focus of plenty of research which suggests that students avoid choosing STEM subjects because their self-identity is at odds with their assumptions about scientists. Many of the strategies suggested for fixing this problem involve challenging their assumptions about scientists. They are important suggestions, but will they work? I’d like to consider the possibility that a far more radical solution is needed to succeed. Ultimately, we may have to change the whole system because many adolescent brains are just not wired to want to be scientists.

The ASPIRES research project is an ongoing longitudinal study of a large cohort of young people. It has been following their career aspirations from the age of 10 and initial results were published when the students were picking their GCSEs at the end of year 9. The decisions students make at this time are crucial as they start to determine possible career options, so it vital to understand what is going on in the mind of a year 9 student if we are to understand the STEM shortage. The findings certainly give food for thought. The ASPIRES research found that students in year 9 generally find science interesting and enjoy their science lessons so teachers and science communicators can give themselves a pat on the back. However, there is also a wealth of evidence to suggest that between years 6 and 9 students go from rating science as one of their favourite subjects in school to saying that they find it both boring and irrelevant. I am not clear whether this disparity is due to recent improvements classroom science, increased presence of science within mainstream culture, or for other reasons, but the reported interest is not translating into aspirations for STEM careers.

About 30% of the ASPIRES cohort would consider being doctors, and a similar but smaller percentage will consider engineering, but only about 15% would consider being scientists compared to about 40% who would like to be artists or designers. There appear to be a number of reasons for this but broadly speaking scientists have the image of being brainy, male, white, and middle class, and most young people, quite unsurprisingly, do not identify. I suspect that the image of scientists portrayed in The Big Bang Theory does not help either. Girls are likely to be attracted to the arts seeing them as more caring, and numerous students are not made to feel smart enough to consider themselves able enough to do science. Black students are particularly vulnerable to this and so the image problem has huge implications for the diversity of candidates going into STEM too. Science degrees are also seen as having non-transferrable skills.

Suggestions to solve the STEM shortage include increasing young people’s science capital by bringing them into contact with scientists, allowing them to see that they are not necessarily exceptional people from privileged backgrounds. Scientists will therefore need to do more outreach by going into schools and should open up their labs to young people looking for work experience. This should not be arranged by nepotistic means as this would certainly perpetuate the lack of diversity of young people exposed to scientists and it should begin early on in primary school. There should be more options for science-based courses that are not seen as hard and overly academic, and with better careers advice young people may be likely to see science as having transferrable skills. I have no doubt that these suggestions would do a great deal to help but when I think back to my own academic and career choices I can’t help but think that this is only half the picture.

I was a brainy, white, middle class student in the top sets for science, I had all the institutional discrimination in my favour. My careers advisor suggested I pursue biochemistry, so I applied for a bunch of biochemistry degrees and even though my science capital was not that high at home, my father was able to get me work experience in a medical research lab where I found the scientists to be normal, personable people. I had promised myself that whatever happened I could never work in an office wearing a suit as this would be unthinkably boring, but the I met scientists got to wear whatever clothes they wished and did not have a stiflingly boring routine. They switched between going to lectures, writing up, and experimental work and there was a relaxed comradery in the lab. It was this experience that helped me make my mind up. I HAD TO GET OUT OF SCIENCE!!! I was too creative to be pipetting all day and too rock n’ roll to be that normal, balanced and satisfied in my job. My inner rebel exploded, I changed my degree programme from a BSc to a BA in philosophy, picked up a guitar and the rest is history. I may spend a lot of time talking about science, but I do not have a STEM career. The insanity is that had I waited another five years before my degree, I would have probably realised that I was more interested in physics than philosophy and would happily have gone into a STEM degree. I may have ended up in the same career of course, but there would be a much higher chance of me having contributed to the economy through STEM in the meantime.

I may be just one example, but my response to having everything stacked in my favour was to run away from STEM as fast as a photon in a vacuum. What I believe is missing from the discussion is that even with the best career advice in the world, and access to the most diverse and normal scientists, how many adolescents really want to do science? Adolescent brains are primed to criticise the status quo, distrust authority, be impulsive, and socially hyperaware. Science is at odds with almost everything the average adolescent values. Whilst science by its nature is critical of the status quo, in school it is presented as well-known facts that cannot be argued with. I once had a student genuinely tell me that he saw no point in his science lessons as he was unable to make a novel contribution. At the time, I argued that if he stayed with it for another 8 years at least, he would certainly be able to make a novel contribution but that seems like a long way off to an adolescent who can walk into the art classroom next door, pick up a paintbrush and make (what they deem to be) a novel contribution there and then. Scientists tell you what to believe, albeit for very good reasons and with open uncertainty, they work in hierarchical systems where it takes experience to produce new contributions, the contributions they make are incrementally small and are not as socially valued as the output of a musician, and they are methodical rather than impulsive. Science is not appealing to many adolescents who wish to make a big difference to the world on a human level rather than a conceptual one and lack the capacity for delayed gratification.

The ASPIRES project reported that young people separated the “sporty / cool students” from those that excelled at science. We all know that kids want to be cool because the cool kids get to snog more at parties and to appreciate just how cool science is, perhaps it helps to have made it through puberty. This does not mean that the suggestions that the ASPIRES project makes are useless. It can only be a good thing to break down the assumptions around scientists. IF students are still in a position to choose a STEM pathway, there is a much higher chance that a more diverse and representative bunch of candidates will apply but that is a big ‘if’. By the end of adolescence many students have passed the academic point of no return. I have a number of friends who started out with arts degrees and changed their path later in life but that is much harder now when a degree saddles you with so much debt. So, what is the answer?

The physicist and author C.P. Snow spoke about this in his famous 1959 ‘Two Cultures’ Lecture. As someone who worked in both the arts and sciences he lamented that the increasing gulf between the two intellectual cultures would lead to narrow-minded thinking and hold us back in a technologically advanced world. Much has changed since Snow’s lecture and, perhaps thanks to increasingly accessible media, the gulf is not quite so large, but one thing has not changed much. Snow believed that in Britain we were more at risk of falling behind in technology due to “our fanatical belief in educational specialisation”. The specialisation in our education system appears to be going nowhere and it is this that forces students to drop STEM subjects before they are ready to make a fully informed decision.

Our education system rewards early specialisation. A good science degree in a highly respected university often requires you to have at two A Levels and one AS in science. Schools know how difficult science A Levels are, and they like to have As and A*s on their league tables, so they will discourage anyone from doing science if they have done double science at GCSE. Any student choosing their GCSE options who wants to study double science to make room for a non-STEM subject will be at a disadvantage later down the line. Over-specialisation not only rewards teenagers with better opportunities, it also appeals to many teenagers who realise that doing related A-Levels requires learning fewer skills, meaning less time is deemed to be wasted on school, leaving more time for snogging at parties. Since more adolescents would rather spend their time learning about sociology, history and philosophy than maths, further maths and physics, STEM loses out.Allowing adolescents to be adolescent means letting them experiment with different modes of thought, multiple identities and multiple activities. They are phenomenally good at doing this. Their brains are built for it and their brains will only start to settle down into a strong identity when adolescence ends in their early twenties. If we encourage students to keep their options open, we might have to wait a bit longer for them to be trained to the same level, but I would bet that there will be a lot more who decide on a STEM career. They would also be trained to think more broadly, have more diverse skills and probably end up with more job satisfaction having made an adult decision about their path. These are surely all outcomes that we desire. When a scientist writes their first paper, many have not had to write an extended piece of prose since their GCSEs and being a skilled communicator carries ever more importance in the professional life of a scientist. Furthermore, the individuals who do not want to follow a STEM path will go into the world of arts, humanities or business with a more solid understanding of the scientific ideas that will allow them to function in the modern technologically driven world. The modern world needs divergent thinkers. So why don’t we create an education system that rewards divergent thinking, trains our students broadly and gives them the time to work out their own identity before forcing them to pick one. I don’t think I was that unusual as teenager to think that creatives were cooler than scientists. Now I know that the best scientists are often creative thinkers, that I could have been a good one and that I was never going to be that cool anyway.