8 November 2021

Te Pūnaha Matatini was a natural home for Dr Steven Turnbull to complete his doctoral project on tertiary science participation in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Equity in science participation is central to Te Pūnaha Matatini’s ethos, and so is Dr Steven Turnbull’s distinctly transdisciplinary approach. For his PhD in Education, Steven combined quantitative analysis of large-scale administrative student records with sociological theory and qualitative analysis of interviews to explore why students chose to engage or disengage from science education.

Using these methods, he explored disparities in science education and created a theoretical model showing how we can make the field of science education more equitable.

Steven was supervised by Te Pūnaha Matatini Principal Investigators Dr Dion O’Neale and Dr Kirsten Locke.

“Steven’s thesis was ambitious in scope, application and methodology,” says Kirsten. “The blending of qualitative and quantitative research approaches is not for the faint-hearted and is notoriously difficult to correctly balance. On this point, Steven’s thesis is exemplary.”

Steven completed a Bachelor of Arts in Education and Psychology, before pursuing postgraduate research in Education, culminating in this PhD project. He has been working with Dion since he did a summer scholarship in Physics during his undergraduate study.

Throughout his PhD Steven was involved with Te Pūnaha Matatini Whānau, and is a regular participant in Te Pūnaha Matatini’s Annual Hui.

“Steven’s PhD is a perfect example of the sort of transdisciplinary research that Te Pūnaha Matatini has enabled,” says Dion.

“While Steven’s thesis was a substantive academic piece of work, throughout his research there was a continuing focus on applications and outcomes that could bring about positive change in STEM education at both a systemic level and for individual students.”

In his thesis Steven analysed data obtained from Aotearoa New Zealand’s Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI) about students studying STEM subjects in Aotearoa New Zealand. He used this data to identify trends in science participation through a novel method of network analysis.

This data was complemented by a survey of science students, followed by in-depth interviews to gain more insight into the human dimension to education engagement.

Steven then interrogated his findings through a theoretical framework based on the sociological work of Pierre Bourdieu.

“Steven is the very first person to ever collect and analyse a decade’s worth of NCEA science data through the Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI) at Stats NZ,” notes Kirsten.

“The analysis that Steven performed with this enormous data set enabled an evidence-based exploration of exactly what was happening with secondary students in their subject selection and the inequities that occur through students turning away from science credits such as physics that could lead to university education.”

“If Steven had stopped there, the thesis would have been an excellent piece of work. However, the truly innovative and astonishing element is how Steven framed and dealt with this comprehensive and thorough data collection approach in relation to the theoretical work of Pierre Bourdieu.”

Steven is now using the quantitative and qualitative skillsets developed in his thesis to address inequities present in existing sources of individual-level data as a postdoctoral research fellow on Te Pūnaha Matatini’s COVID-19 modelling team.

He says that “being in a place were you can contribute to mitigating COVID-19 risk in New Zealand is quite a powerful thing”.

For Steven and the modelling team, this is values-driven work. “Te Pūnaha Matatini is constantly taking an equity-based approach, putting marginalised groups at the centre of everything we do.”