Student awareness of Science – what does the research say?

It's National Science Week and a key aim of the annual celebration is to increase engagement and interest in Science. Here, we take a look at what some of the research says about how students perceive Science.

Research shows that students in Australia have a considerably lower level of motivation than their OECD counterparts when it comes to learning Science. And, according to Australia's Chief Scientist, ‘when students make subject decisions in secondary school, they are more likely to make choices that will be consistent with ultimately undertaking STEM related tertiary studies and careers if they understand the kinds of real world problems those careers might help them solve as adults.'

So, how engaged are students in Science? How aware are they about the various aspects of the subject and its potential career opportunities?

Student career aspirations in science

One study surveyed over 9000 primary school students about their educational and occupational aspirations, with a particular view to investigate the level of students' interest in Science.

The study, Young Children's Aspirations in Science: The unequivocal, the uncertain and the unthinkable, took place in England and found that students expressed positive attitudes to Science and held positive images of scientists.

For instance, 73.8 per cent of students agreed, or strongly agreed, that they learn interesting things in Science, and 58.1 per cent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that ‘Science lessons are exciting'.

However, when it came to student aspirations in Science, the results weren't as overwhelmingly positive. Just 28.5 per cent of students said they'd like to have a job using Science, 23.4 per cent said they'd like to work in Science, and 16.6 per cent said they wanted to become a scientist.

‘There often seems to be little overlap between students' self-perceptions and their perceptions of scientists,' the report says. ‘Such perceptions are likely to be exacerbated by students' lack of understanding about what Science careers actually involve.'

Student attitudes and awareness of STEM

Another report released this year by the Australian Department of Industry, Innovation and Science details the findings from a survey of 2000 students (aged between 12 and 25) in order to better understand student awareness of STEM and STEM careers.

When asked to spell out the STEM acronym, 62 per cent of respondents did so correctly. One in five admitted they didn't know how to complete the acronym and 18 per cent gave incorrect answers. Answers were most commonly incorrect for ‘E' and ‘M', with some common responses being ‘English', ‘Environment', ‘Economics', ‘Marketing' and ‘Medicine'.

In terms of their attitudes towards Science; eight in 10 respondents agree that scientists make a positive impact on the world, and two thirds feel confident that they could achieve good results in Science, Technology and Mathematics.

However, student attitudes towards Engineering weren't as positive, with 38 per cent confident they could achieve good results in the subject, and 42 per cent expressing a general interest in it (compared to 64 per cent expressing an interest in Science). In terms of confidence levels in Engineering, 50 per cent of males say they were confident, compared to just 26 per cent of females. This is in comparison to 60 per cent of both genders saying they are confident in Mathematics and Science.

These attitudes towards Engineering are a concern, the report says, as students also reveal in the survey that they associate a career in STEM most closely with Engineering.

Science literacy in Australia

In Australia, the Australian Academy of Science analysed the level of Science literacy in Australia in 2010, and again in 2013. The findings from the 2013 analysis are presented in the report, Science Literacy in Australia. Over 1000 people were given a multiple choice questionnaire filled with Science questions, including ‘Do you think evolution is occurring?' and ‘How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun?' Respondents were also asked about their opinions about the importance of different aspects of Science.

Results show that since 2010, 4 per cent fewer respondents (a total of 9 per cent) correctly identify that 3 per cent of the Earth's water is fresh. And, of the young people surveyed, 12 per cent fewer 18-24 year-old respondents (a total of 62 per cent) in 2013 know that it takes one year for the Earth to orbit the sun.

‘Generally younger respondents, men, and those with a higher education level were more likely to answer the questions correctly,' the report concludes. ‘However, knowledge levels amongst young people have dropped more than other groups over the last three years.'

On a more positive note, when asked ‘In your opinion, how important is science education to the Australian economy?' 38 per cent of 18-24 year-olds say it is ‘absolutely essential'. A further 34 per cent believe it was ‘very important', with only 1 per cent saying it's not at all important.


DeWitt, J., Osborne, J., Archer, L., Dillon, J., Willis, B., Wong, B. (2013) Young Children's Aspirations in Science: The unequivocal, the uncertain and the unthinkable. International Journal of Science Education.

Student Edge (2019). Youth in STEM Research Youth Insight Report. Australian Government Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.

Wyatt, N. (2013) Science literacy in Australia. Australian Academy of Science.

One study found that only 23.4 per cent of primary school students said they’d like to work in Science, and another found that adolescents perceive a job in STEM to be most closely related to Engineering.

In your school setting, what are some student misconceptions about careers in Science? How do you go about challenging these misconceptions?