How do you get children from disadvantaged backgrounds engaged with science?

One answer is youth workers. They are developing and delivering inspiring science activities through Curiosity, our scheme with BBC Children in Need.

Children and scientists look at an image showing organs of the human body
Children from Abraham Moss Warriors Sports Club learn about the vital organs of the human body with scientists from the Metropolitan University of Manchester. The Club was awarded a Curiosity grant in 2018.
Credit: June Kelly

We live in a world that's shaped extensively by science. We’re living longer, creating and consuming more information than ever before, and using more advanced technologies in our everyday lives. Being proficient in science, not just literate, is important to be able to successfully navigate and participate in the modern world. 

As with many things, education plays a key part. In the UK, we have a high-quality education system, with British students ranking fifteenth internationally in science. This year also saw an increase in the number of students in England studying sciences for their A levels.

However, on average, children and young people who experience disadvantage do less well at school and tend to perceive science as particularly academic and ‘hard’. People from wealthier families are more likely to study science to degree level or beyond, and to work in science-related jobs.

Getting science into youth programmes 

Youth organisations are established experts at working with young people in their communities and on their terms. They are trusted and their activities emphasise relevance and fun, which are important for engaging young people who might have low expectations of formal education.

Youth workers are always crafting informal learning activities. But they tend not to use science – possibly because it’s associated with school science (biology, chemistry and physics), remembering facts and doing academic tests.

This is why, in partnership with BBC Children in Need, we established Curiosity. The aim is to support more youth organisations to incorporate science into their programmes, and to help shift children and young people’s perceptions on the value of science to their lives.

Curiosity builds on our earlier research on science and the youth sector, including a pilot training scheme for youth workers from The Prince’s Trust Fairbridge programme who wanted to run science-related activities.

Curiosity projects: what we've learned so far 

Our first set of funded projects gave us new insights, and showed that informal science learning can make a positive difference to the lives of children and young people.

For example, one youth worker told us that they used to ‘wrap young people in cotton wool’ because they thought they couldn’t deal with more challenges in their lives. But, by using informal science activities, they found that even when young people sometimes got unexpected or ‘wrong’ results they weren’t put off, they showed their resilience and their desire to crack the problem and make it work. 

Many of the participants experience multiple disadvantages which, alongside negatively impacting their general wellbeing, act as a barrier to science. In some of the Curiosity projects, science offered something unique compared to other activities. It encouraged the children to ask questions, develop their analytical thinking and collaborate with peers – all helping to develop key life skills. 

And where youth workers and the young people worked together to find the most relevant and interesting science activities there were much higher rates of engagement.

What next? 

The new projects we’ve funded will build on our learning so far and help us to find out more about how science is different to other types of activities used by youth workers, such as sport, art or drama.

We hope that through Curiosity, children and young people will have more opportunities to encounter, learn and enjoy science in their everyday lives. This means situating activity in their communities, connecting it to the issues they face and helping them to participate with their friends.

We want to continue to work with more youth organisations to incorporate science into their work with children and young people.

There are wider, systemic problems in the diversity and inclusivity of science and, with others, we are working to improve this culture. We hope that through these different strands of work, we can make a genuine difference.

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