Science capital for historians: a personal reflection

‘Not for me’.

Growing up, science wasn’t something I often encountered. No one in my family worked in typically ‘sciencey’ jobs and it was rarely a topic of conversation at home. There were no science museums or science centres near to where I lived, so my only experience of the subject was at school. I didn’t read about science in magazines or the news and I didn’t watch science programmes. During my free time, I baked and played sport but I didn’t consider that these hobbies might involve science.  I couldn’t see how science related to my life or how studying science could lead to anything other than working in a lab, so I didn’t pursue it beyond GCSE. If anyone had asked me whether I was interested in science, I would have said no; history was what interested me and this is what I chose to study at university which has led to my career in museum education.  I had low science capital.

However, this all changed when I began working at the Science Museum. When I’d visited the museum, I’d been impressed by the Explainers’ open and friendly facilitation and the way in which they related science to visitors’ lives and interests. This type of museum engagement was something I was very keen on and motivated me to join the Science Museum where I discovered the research around science capital. This concept made me reflect on my own experiences and my assumption that science wasn’t for me.

The Chemistry Bar, Wonderlab

There are many excellent engagement approaches that were brought together by the science capital research. The one that really clicked for me was the value placed on the experiences you already have. Putting science capital research into practice is not about communicating more science; it’s about changing how you communicate science to include visitors in the conversation. It does not try to force the ‘fun’ of science upon you. Instead it allows you to engage with science on your own terms. A lot of it is simply about changing perceptions and making us all more aware of science in our everyday lives. For me, the hook was discovering how the story of the Russian cosmonauts related to the wider history and politics of the Cold War. Drawn into the science behind space flight by my interest in history, I was amazed to find that I use the same laws of motion that propel rockets every time I swim. Until then I had never considered that swimming could be a part of science.

Science capital research provides useful insights into what effects our science engagement and a few things particularly resonated with me. The first was the importance of inclusive language. It subtly acknowledges that every one of us is already a part of the science in our world; we are all scientists. The second is the focus on confidence and ownership. By making people feel welcome and by inviting them to follow their interests we can empower them to participate in science. For example, by recognising that science is not just static facts and figures and that my history and political knowledge is also a part of science, gives me more confidence to engage with debates surrounding nuclear power, climate change and the ethics of artificial intelligence. I no longer feel that I need a PhD to have an opinion about science. The third was the centrality of people who use science. After broadening my perception of science, I am now aware that everyone I know uses STEM in their lives; from my flatmate who designs computer games to my friend who works in international aid. Knowing people – like me – who use science in their work has helped me identify more with science.

Since learning about the research and applying it in my own life my science capital has increased. My database of science facts has not significantly changed and I still enjoy learning about history. However, my perception and attitude towards science has changed and I no longer see history and science as exclusive of each other. I am now more engaged. I can recognise the science around me and I have the confidence and ownership to not be afraid of science. The research has helped me to realise that to be a part of this world is to be a part of science. It is now definitely something that is ‘for me’.

How has science capital research helped you to reflect on your own perception of science?

Amy Davy, Learning Resources Developer (Science Museum, London)

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