Schoolgirl using magnifying glass to study a cross section of oak taken from the most important houses in Wales, Llwyn Celyn, a house that has been lived in since the Medieval times.

An analysis carried out by Swansea University Science for School Scheme (S4), a widening access STEM outreach programme established in 2012, has found that it is having a positive impact on young people from poorer areas by improving their career aspirations, and opinions on studying science at university.

The S4 programme delivers research-led science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) based activities, including hands-on workshops, summer schools and science showcases, as well as online education to young people in South Wales in areas experiencing poverty and disadvantage. It was created to catalyse interest in STEM subjects to improve STEM education uptake and attainment in disadvantaged young people with the aim of increasing the diversity of the science workforce in Wales.

There has long been an assumption that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have low aspirations, and this has led to a policy focus and huge financial drive for ‘aspiration-raising’ programmes. However, students from poorer families continue to be less likely to study science post-16 and are less likely to do well when they do.

A recently published analysis looked at some of the S4 participants’ career aspirations, views of science and university, and the impact of coming to an S4 workshop or event. We found that while these young people are ambitious and confident in their abilities in both science and wider skill areas, at the same time they are starkly aware of the real obstacles they face in reaching university and the careers they aspire to, including concerns over the cost of education. Their teachers went further, citing low literacy and numeracy skills, household poverty, rural isolation, disabilities, caring responsibilities, and teenage pregnancy, as barriers to higher education for their pupils.

S4’s mission has been reinforced by this analysis as the survey showed that their science intervention has the greatest impact with those young people in the extremes of socio-economic deprivation, particularly in terms of bolstering existing science and education aspirations and increasing the ‘thinkability’ of attending university

Professor Mary Gagen, who, along with Dr Will Bryan, leads the S4 programme, said:

“This paper summarises what we have found out about young people’s thoughts and feelings on science and higher education from the first ten years of our programme. S4 is funded to understand the needs of science outreach and public engagement for widening access in Wales. An enormous amount of money is spent on trying  to broaden the demographic of scientists but an awful lot of research and studies are done in large cities, in England; when S4 began we did not really know what sort out outreach interventions best promoted positive change in widening access to science education in the specific social and economic contexts here in Wales. A lot of assumptions are made in outreach and public engagement that underserved and low participation demographics lack the aspiration to pursue science and higher education goals and that simply is not true. Our work, with over 26,000 participants and 50 schools, found out a lot about what young people think and feel about science and higher education participation in Wales and how social and economic barriers push back on their aspirations”

The analysis is published here.

More information on S4 can be found here.

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