Maya Sharma shares her learning about how arts, culture and creativity can boost science capital and increase STEM participation for under-represented groups.

August 16, 2019

At The Audience Agency, we have a bit of a track record of evaluating science projects. We’ve worked with Manchester Science Festival, Science Museum, Wellcome Trust, Wellcome Collection,British Science Association and Science Gallery to name a few. Recent projects include evaluating Tactile Collider, a project that aimed to engage visually impaired young people with particle physics and evaluating CELL, where school pupils explored biology through the medium of dance. We are currently working with Catalyst Science Discovery Centre to evaluate a major project that seeks to engage under-represented audiences alongside an exciting revamp of the building.

As a result of working on projects like these, we’ve spent time researching science capital and the role arts and culture can play in supporting its development. We’d like to share some of our learning with you.

What is science capital?

Science capital is all your science-related knowledge (what you know), attitudes (what you think) and contacts (who you know). It’s a concept that was developed by the ASPIRES project, which studied science and career aspirations and goes way beyond an individual's knowledge or understanding of science. This builds on Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital. (This great blog from the Science Museum explains further).

Why is science capital important?

The more science capital a young person has, the more likely they are to study science in the future. This is not only important to the UK economy and reputation but also because science can provide a route to social mobility. Given the incredibly fast pace of scientific and technological developments, being STEM-literate is vital to actively taking part in society. Put simply, people without strong science capital are more at risk of being left behind.

So is science capital a social justice issue then?

More and more cultural organisations - and not simply science museums – are seeing science capital as a social justice issue. This means challenging the stereotype that science is only ‘for’ some people, recognising that women, working-class people and some ethnic groups are under-represented in STEM and boosting their participation.

How can arts, culture and creativity boost science capital?

  • Demonstrate how STEM relates to everyday life in ways that a range of ages and people can relate to.
  • Recognise the existing science capital people have and build on this.
  • Allow people to explore science in ways that they feel comfortable with and are authentic to their personal context.
  • Challenge the stereotype that science is only for certain types of people – present diverse role models.

We’ve seen cultural organisations successfully boost science capital in imaginative ways. Catalyst Science Discover Centre is working with mental health charity Mind on a programme offering therapeutic activities to people with problematic anxiety: fun, relaxing and soothing activities offered in various museum spaces will gently engage people in science at the same time as helping them build their emotional resilience and encouraging them to see the Museum space as theirs. Future activities include inviting local people to work with an olfactory artist to explore past and present smells of Widnes (formerly an important site of several chemical industries) to create a Smell Trail!

Catalyst Science Discovery Centre celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing with a fun day for the whole family. One of the most popular activities was the chance to meet Dr Jackie Bell, local woman and trainee astronaut.

Featured in the August edition of The Learning Diaries. Aimed at those working in learning, engagement or participation in the cultural sector, this newsletter will share updates from our team on sector events, ideas from some of our projects and links to new research. To receive The Learning Diaries, visit the sign up page.