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Should we embed careers education in STEM lessons?

Michael Reiss Tamjid Mujtaba

Schools have a number of functions but one of the key ones is to help young people learn so as to prepare them for their lives once they leave school; however, good careers education is lacking and has weakened in recent years.

In a paper published in The Curriculum Journal we present an argument intended to help redress this situation. We concentrate on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects in part because of a widespread presumption that England needs more people employed in STEM jobs and in part because we draw on the findings of two STEM education projects, one that we were involved in (UPMAP) and another funded in the same initiative (ASPIRES).

We concentrate on changes that might be made in 11-16 education to increase the uptake of post-16 STEM subjects. However, it is not the case that we feel all students should choose STEM subjects. Our presumption, rather, is that changes might increase the number of students choosing post-16 STEM subjects and that such students would be glad that they had made such choices.

The ASPIRES and UPMAP projects

Given the widespread concerns in the early 2000s about science and mathematics education in England, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) with other funders ran the TISME (Targeted Research Initiative on Science and Mathematics Education) programme from 2008-2014 in which five research projects were funded.

The ASPIRES project explored science aspirations and engagement among 10-14 year olds (Archer et al., 2013). It comprised a quantitative survey of the cohort and longitudinal interviews with a selected sub-sample of students and their parents. The data were collected at three time points: in Year 6 (age 10/11), in Year 8 (age 12/13) and in Year 9 (age 13/14).

The ASPIRES project showed that few young people (approximately 15%) aspire to become a scientist. This percentage remains stable as students age from 10 to 14 years, is markedly lower than aspirations for many other careers (almost 60% aspire to have a job in business) and is despite the fact that most young people report liking school science, report positive views of scientists and say that their parents think it is important for them to learn science.

The UPMAP (Understanding Participation rates in post-16 Mathematics And Physics) project (Mujtaba & Reiss, 2014) was designed to determine the factors that made it more likely that students would continue with mathematics and/or physics after age 16. It had three strands. In strand 1, student questionnaires were completed by large numbers of secondary students. Strand 2 entailed working with 12 of the strand 1 schools in more depth, collecting longitudinal interviews with students between 15- 17 years of age. Strand 3 involved interviewing first year undergraduates. Half these students had started STEM-related undergraduate courses and half had started other degrees yet had qualifications that would have allowed them to start STEM-related courses.

The UPMAP project showed that young people are more likely to continue with mathematics and/or physics after the age of 16: (a) if they have been encouraged to do so by a key adult; (b) if they believe that they will gain from studying the subject in terms of job satisfaction and/or material rewards; (c) if they manifest conceptual understanding in the subject(s); and (d) if they have been well taught.

The implications for STEM careers education

We conclude by presenting eight propositions that follow from the ASPIRES and UPMAP projects and focus, though not exclusively, on embedding careers education in STEM lessons:

  • STEM careers education should be embedded within STEM subjects to a far greater extent than is presently the case.
  • Careers education needs to respect the autonomy of learners.
  • Students do not need to be convinced that STEM careers are important; they need to be confident that they could have such careers.
  • A prime reason why students study STEM subjects post-16 is because they believe such subjects will be useful for them.
  • Another reason why students study STEM subjects post-16 is because a significant adult believes that such subjects are worthwhile and the students can succeed at them.
  • Children from families that are familiar with the world or science are much more likely than their peers to want to study science post-16 and/or work in science careers.
  • Many students are unaware of the benefits of a post-16 STEM qualification. Embedded STEM careers education may help remedy this.
  • Careers education needs to help broaden students’ awareness of the transferability of science qualifications for a wide range of careers both in and beyond science, at degree and technical levels.