Research School Network: Securing ​‘Science Capital’


Securing ​‘Science Capital’

by Research Schools Network
on the

Alister Talbot is Science Research Lead at Huntington Research School.

Science teaching has changed a great deal since March this year. For one, practical work – so helpful in making sense of dense scientific theory – has been curtailed. 

Many confident, knowledgeable novice scientists have been able to grapple with the complexity of science in the new remote teaching contexts. For others, however, not being in the science classroom has likely meant that missing vital teacher explanations and questions, along with helpful practicals to translate abstract ideas into a concrete reality, has seen them fall behind their peers. 

One answer to engaging pupils with ways into many of the abstractions of scientific theory is to take a Science Capital’ teaching approach. This approach utilises novice pupils’ prior knowledge to personalise the tricky topics of science , and is outlined in the Improving Secondary Science report’s Teaching for Engagement” section. 

This doesn’t mean teaching content in a contrived, contextual way; rather, it aims to build on developing knowledge of science and to help the young people in front of me see that science is for them’. A study of attitudes towards science showed that pupils who aspire to study science subjects are more likely to have high levels of this science capital’.

Taking part in science research

In September 2016, my Head of Department asked me if I would be interested in taking part in a research project, led by UCL and the National STEM Learning Centre, known as the Enterprising Science Project. It introduced a new teaching approach which could apparently lead to improved engagement in school science and might even encourage more of our learners to pursue STEM related careers. 

So, what is Science Capital?

Science capital can be defined as the sum of all the science-related knowledge, attitudes, experiences and resources that an individual builds up through their life. It can be useful to think of science capital as a bag you carry throughout life that contains all your science-related knowledge (what you know), attitudes (what you think), experiences (what you do) and contacts (who you know).’ 

According to University College London, one of Science Capital’s founders, the concept can be grouped into 8 dimensions:

  1. Science Literacy: a student’s knowledge and understanding about science and how science works. This also includes their confidence in feeling that they know about science.
  2. Science-related attitudes, values and dispositions: the extent to which a student sees science as relevant to their everyday life.
  3. Knowledge about the transferability of science: understanding the utility and broad application of scientific skills, knowledge and qualifications.
  4. Science media consumption: the extent to which a student engages with science-related media including television, books, magazines and internet content.
  5. Participation in out-of-school science learning contexts: how often a student participates in informal science learning contexts, such as at science museums, science clubs and fairs.
  6. Family science skills, knowledge and qualifications: the extent to which a student’s family have science-related skills, qualifications, jobs and interests.
  7. Knowing people in science-related roles: the people a student knows (in a meaningful way) among their wider family, friends, peers and community circles who work in science-related roles.
  8. Talking about science in everyday life: how often a student talks about science with key people in their lives (e.g., friends, siblings, parents, neighbours, community members).

How has this influenced my classroom teaching?

Whilst tweaking my lessons to use this new teaching style, I aimed to include some of the key dimensions of Science Capital (see above). For example, for a year 8 homework on the effects of smoking, I asked pupils to watch some YouTube videos with an adult at home and then interview them to gauge their reactions. This covers two of the science capital dimensions— science media consumption and talking about science in everyday life. For another piece of work, my year 8 pupils watched a video with someone else to determine their hearing range. 

The results were really encouraging. An extract from my journal demonstrates the high level of engagement in the topic and pupils’ willingness to discuss science out of the classroom:

What did my students say/​think/​do?

Review of EL – 100% uptake on watching videos with family – discuss idea that different people hear different things led into Nihal1discussing his hearing impairment – pupils asked him when it started, what tests he had done, how does a hearing aid work and is there any improvement.

My Reflection

100% completion of homework task! Woop! Lovely questions asked to Nihal about his hearing aid – Paul, a student who has generally been very disengaged, was so keen on asking questions…

After a month or so of using the science capital approach, it became apparent that my questioning strategy during lessons had changed quite significantly. I have chosen to call this new questioning strategy Elicit and Value Questioning’. Elicit and Value Questioning places pupils at the centre of learning, and asks how things relate to them.

For example, in a lesson about metals, instead of asking What are the main properties of metals?”, I might ask, Do you use any metals in your hobbies? What for? Why?” 

Here, I am trying to elicit what the pupils know about metals in the context of their hobbies and interests. This sparked real enthusiasm among my year 10 students. I showed them that I valued their contributions by asking them further questions such as why is metal good to use for hair straighteners? And what properties do metals have which enables them to be used in football studs?’

So, I’ve now got my pupils thinking about science outside of the classroom. But what about the content of the lesson? How do I maintain the richness and depth required for the GCSE curriculum?

After eliciting what the students know about a certain topic, I teach a normal lesson’, but the key aspect comes when, after teaching the content, I go back to the pupils’ experiences outside the classroom and encourage them to explain these using the lesson’s key ideas.

Thus, a cycle of eliciting what the students know, valuing their contributions, teaching the key content and linking the key content with the students’ experiences is created:

Screenshot 2020 12 17 172341

What about pupil outcomes and my observations of learning in my classroom?

Here is a paragraph written by a pupil during a lesson on Echoes’. I started off the lesson by asking pupils to share their experiences of hearing an echo and I valued their experiences in a class discussion.

Echoes paragraph

I taught the theory behind echoes using a slinky as a model for visualising the sound waves, before then encouraging students to explain why they heard their own echo using the lesson content. Here you can see how they linked the lesson content with their own experiences, whilst still producing an exam level answer.

This is not reinventing the wheel, or teaching the whole curriculum in a contrived, contextual way. It is a way of helping to ensure that our students can see the relevance of school science to them.

Let’s face it, in a time when many of our young people are confined to two classrooms a day – where some of the things they enjoy most about school are unavailable to them – we can at least give them something to talk about – especially when it’s about the relevance of science to them.

1 All names have been changed to preserve students’ anonymity.

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