Science and the Youth Sector

A look into our research for the Wellcome Trust about the impact of STEM activities on disadvantaged young people.

Wellcome Trust


Wellcome Trust Logo

The challenge

What role does informal science learning (ISL) play with regards to aspirations, perceptions, attitudes and skills of young people?

That’s a question the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation, looked at in more detail as part of one of their latest projects: ‘Science and the Youth Sector.

Research has shown that young people are particularly influenced by three environments:

  • Home, parents and siblings:  
  • Schools, teachers and peers;  
  • The neighbourhood and community spaces they access

However there is little research explaining the role of science in that third space. Furthermore there are significant gaps in the knowledge about the role of informal science learning (ISL) activities with regards to future aspirations, perceptions, attitudes and skills of young people.

The Wellcome Trust, who exists to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive was interested to look at this knowledge gap in more details. They commissioned us to complete a piece of research to help them identify the impact informal science learning activities have on young people, when delivered by youth workers which have been part of a pilot-training scheme in 2016 to learn how to better incorporate ISL activities into their standard practices and approaches.

As part of our research we focused on exploring four key areas for the young people:

  1. Their attitudes
  2. Their perceptions
  3. Their aspirations
  4. The benefits of ISL activities

Our Approach

We started our research out by attending two training sessions to youth workers (one in London and one in Glasgow). This helped us to better understand the delivery of the training sessions to youth workers and learn more about the different ISL activities they were asked to incorporate.  We used both of those sessions to observe the training delivery, the different ISL activities on offer, and the youth workers engagement with these.

Following this, we conducted a range of telephone interviews with additional youth workers who had attended the training in 2016. These interviews aimed to understand youth workers perspectives on ISL training and how they afterwards implemented the ISL activities into their standard practices and approaches.

The next step for us was to conduct qualitative semi-structured interviews with 58 young people across the UK who had experienced these informal science learning (ISL) activities within their out of school setting. All of these interviews took place in person through visiting 10 different youth organisations. This way we were able to supplement many of our interviews with observations of the actual activities taking place.

To analyse the data, we created a framework for understanding the young people’s science background. This framework took into account different related activities young people had taken part in, their hobbies and interests, their parents’ or carers’ professions, and their own career aspirations. This way we were able to create a context for understanding young people’s prior experience or personal connections with science. The findings of this research furthermore helped us to create typologies for young people.


Our research identified that there is a distinct set of experiences that can be gained from informal science (ISL) activities, which depend upon both the context of the young person themselves (their science background) and the context of the delivery of the activities.

Context matters, and there was no single approach to delivering the activities identified by this research.

Additionally, the informal youth work space is an important part of the ecosystem of influence on young people. It was easy to introduce science activities into out of school settings at relatively low cost and in ways that were almost universally enjoyable to young people. It has clear potential to broaden and nuance the views of young people about science.

Looking at the four key research questions, our research has highlighted some important findings:

Attitudes to science:

In some instances, the ISL activities could have the potential to change wider science attitudes, breaking down the view that science is hard and ‘not for me’. But to do this the science must be made explicit, the activity must remain fun, and it should focus more on either the explosive or process views of science..

Perceptions of science

The activities were perceived as fun, and there were instances of young people discussing a science benefit that they saw as transferrable to future study or employment. This link was most

obvious in those with a stronger science background, and when experiencing a focused

science session.


Due to the one-off intervention of this research, it is impossible to know whether the ISL activities have any influence on aspirations of the young people.The findings are consistent with those of science capital research, suggesting that positive experiences of science in out of school settings could begin to add to the ecology of influence around aspirations.

Personal, social and emotional benefits of ISL activities

The research has also highlighted six potential benefits for young people from the experience of informal activities:

  • Strategic thinking
  • Perseverance
  • Confidence
  • Specific science processes
  • Teamwork and
  • Creativity skills.

Matthew Hickman, Programmes Manager – Science Learning from the Wellcome Trust about our research:

“Understanding what difference, if any, our work has, and why, on children and young people affected by disadvantage is crucial for us. Working with Renaisi allowed us to better understand the complex range of factors that influence how children and young people affected by disadvantage engage with science according to the nature of the disadvantage they experience and the nature of the intervention. Renaisi’s thoughtful and thorough approach was appropriate and valuable to tackling the questions in hand. They are also simply a great bunch of people, who is was a pleasure to work with.”

“We’re using the results of Renaisi’s work as a lens through which to consider future work. In particular, it has helped us to hone new evaluation questions that will further improve both our understanding of what difference we can make and how.”

Those are just some of the fundings and implications, to read the full report and read more about our research and methodology, alongside some wider implications, please download the report here: