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Leaky pipelines: Primary children’s subject interest, science capital and aspirations to careers in engineering

Edmonds, Juliet; Lewis, Fay


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Juliet Edmonds
Senior Lecturer in Primary Science Education

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Dr Fay Lewis
Senior Lecturer in Mathematics


De Witt et al (2015) suggest that children are unlikely to change their minds as to whether science-based careers are for them between the end of primary school and year 9 (aged 11 and 14 in the UK). Indeed, attitudes in children to STEM subjects appear to be consolidated at this point in education (EngineerUK, 2015; Archer et. A., 2012 and Murphy and Whitelegg, 2006).
Without an understanding of the way that attitudes and aspirations are formed, we may not be able to potentially address this deficit. This can result in a smaller pool of students taking science subjects and choosing careers in the sciences and engineering (Royal Academy of Engineering, 2012).
The way that these aspirations, and attitudes towards STEM subjects are developed is obviously a complex process that can be influenced by self -identity; including gender, class, ethnicity, parents’ attitudes and self-efficacy in STEM subjects. A focus of current research has been recently on the children’s habitus and science
capital drawing on the social theories of Bourdieu (1984).

Projects that build on children’s science capital (Godek et al, 2017), as well as projects working in schools have been developed to provide an engineering experience at an appropriate level for children. Projects working with engineering students or STEM ambassadors have allowed children to interact with real engineers. These projects report an increase in attitudes towards engineering as well as an increase in aspiration towards engineering careers (Stapleton, et. al 2009: Molina Gaudo et al., 2010).

A project that tries to provide an engineering experience, the Children as Engineer project takes Initial teacher education students with Engineering students into schools to do design and make projects with children aged 9-11 using the EU Engineer materials (www.
The primary school children were also, for 3 consecutive years, asked to take part in a university conference where they showcased their own designs and experienced university research engineering projects, such as robotics. This enabled relationships to form between engineering students and children as well as showcasing the wide range of engineering activity that exists. In the third year of the project, a group of parents were asked to participate in the classroom activities and went on a trip with their children to a science centre. Parents were also provided with engineering challenges to do at home with their children.

In two successive years of the project, the children were asked to complete a questionnaire and to draw an engineer. Other qualitative data was collected through interviews and comment on post- its during sessions. Pre- activity questionnaires collected quantitative and qualitative data. In the first year, using Likert scales, the children were asked how much they liked school, science, maths and design technology. They were asked if they had considered a career as an engineer and if so, why, and if not, why. They also were requested to draw their idea of an engineer. In the second year, the children were asked about STEM type activities outside school and aspirations towards STEM careers. Small groups of children whose parents had been involved were interviewed and groups whose parents had not participated using semi-structured questions about their experience of the project, their parents and out of school STEM activities. The total number of children completing the research was 344 in the first year and in the second 258.

The first round of data was analysed by using both Spearman’s and Pearson’s correlations; the children’s interest in science, maths and design technology correlated against their aspiration to consider a career in Engineering. The data was also analysed according to gender. In the second year, the children’s out of school interest correlation with aspirations towards Engineering careers was analysed.
The results of both data analyses were novel and we are unaware of other data demonstrating this picture.
In this paper, we explore the data and the children’s responses and the impact of gender on the results. We will discuss possible reasons behind the patterns in the data and what this might mean for engineering education and science in primary schools and in external STEM intervention activities. We have planned further research to explore these patterns further and would be interested to share these plans and to discuss these with the conference participants.


Edmonds, J., & Lewis, F. (2021, September). Leaky pipelines: Primary children’s subject interest, science capital and aspirations to careers in engineering. Presented at British Educational Research Association Conference, Online

Presentation Conference Type Lecture
Conference Name British Educational Research Association Conference
Conference Location Online
Start Date Sep 13, 2021
End Date Sep 13, 2021
Deposit Date Sep 21, 2021
Public URL