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Why we need to start exploring LGBTI+ youths' experience of science education

By Liam Cini O’Dwyer

PhD candidate, School of Education, Communication and Society, King’s College London

03 February 2022

In this blog, Liam Cini O'Dwyer reflects on his MA in STEM Education and how it introduced him to the world of education research. He explains how he uncovered a gap in the literature around research in and innovations for the social minority category of sexuality and gender-nonconforming identities. He goes on to lay out his plans for how he will address this imbalance in his PhD, focusing on inclusion/exclusion in secondary school science education, using Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and other non-cisgender-heterosexual (LGBTI+) perspectives.

A hugely formative STEM Education MA, uncovering inequality in social minority representation in STEM education

In October 2020 I enrolled on the MA in STEM Education at King’s College London. The course allowed me to explore the latest research and developments around Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) policies, pedagogies, and practices. It looked at historical perspectives and current events whilst considering international, national, and local approaches – looking beyond STEM education to explore political, economic, and social drivers behind the STEM movement.

What I appreciated the most was that it gave me a language to explore issues of social justice around STEM education. I had a cursory knowledge and understanding of diversity and inclusion in education, but nothing in depth. The MA gave me access to literature about how socially marginalised groups are impacted by inequalities in education, and to research and theories to understand the situation in a complex and nuanced way.

An assignment for one of the modules would prove to be particularly influential on the course of my future: for the ‘Leading Practices in STEM Education’ module, I had to write an essay for which I had to write about the latest research that underpins STEM education innovations. Innovations being new approaches, methods, or ideas to encourage more students to pursue further education in STEM subjects and STEM careers.

I choose to use social justice as my theoretical framework, with feminism as the main lens through which I view the literature, for as a teacher at a comprehensive girls’ school in central London, I am very interested in the gender imbalance in STEM. However, during my reading of the research into the STEM innovations, such as Stemettes, Girls Who Code and BBSTEM, I started to notice notions of intersectionality and an imbalance in provision for different social minorities.

There seemed to be a number of innovations and research for gender, ethnicity/race, socio-economic status, and for certain disabilities (deafness or blindness, for example, were not as well represented), but there was a distinct imbalance when it came to research in and innovations for the social minority category of sexuality and gender-nonconforming identities.

There were no innovations or research dedicated to LGBTI+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and other non-cisgender-heterosexual identities) youth in STEM education. I found this lack of representation appalling. How can STEM education, innovations and the research that underpins them be considered socially just when there is such an imbalance in the representation of social minorities groups in the innovations and research?– Liam Cini O'Dwyer

Consequently, I changed my essay from focusing on the gender imbalance in STEM education innovations, to instead considering the imbalance in the representation of the different social minority categories in STEM education innovations and the research that underpins it. In essence, I was asking: why are there so many more STEM innovations and research for gender, race/ethnicity, socio-economic status, and certain disabilities, and so little for sexuality and gender non-conforming identities? I became really fired up by what I uncovered; the more I read, the more I felt something had to be done to address this imbalance.

The essay showed me the importance of innovations that explicitly include socially marginalised groups in formal and informal educational settings, within, across and extra curricula. This led me to set up a Diversity and Inclusion club at my school to explore issues face by marginalised groups and celebrate them across the school through events such as day and month-long observances, eg, Asian History Month and Women in STEM Day. The school celebrated ‘Just Like Us’ Diversity Week last July; and each department is, at the urging of the D&I group, in the process of reviewing and updating their curricula to make sure that socially marginalised groups are represented. The D&I group also encouraged the STEM club to research the contributions of LGBTI+ people in STEM; they then shared these in a celebratory newsletter during LGBTI+ History Month, exactly a year ago.


Exploring issues of inclusion/exclusion of LGBTI+ students in Science through a PhD at King’s

As I found everything I studied and learnt during the MA immensely useful, I shared a lot of the research with my colleagues, and much has changed at my school directly because of the STEM Education MA in terms of policies and practice, within, across and in extra curricula settings.

It was during my dissertation, where I was exploring issues of social justice related to models of setting students in secondary science classes, that I realised I did not want this experience of research and learning to end for me. When the research group CRESTEM at KCL advertised for a PhD candidate, I jumped at the chance and applied straight away.

I knew exactly what I wanted to research as I had already found a major gap in the literature, around the fact that no one had ever explored LGBTI+ youths’ experience of any of the STEM disciplines. As a scientist, a science teacher and as a gay man, I am particularly interested in exploring LGBTI+ youths’ experience of science education.

I don’t know why LGBTI+ youths have been ignored from the research, unlike the other social minority categories. It may be due to issues of conscious or unconscious bias, heterosexism or homophobia, or perhaps something else? However, it is clearly leading to a hidden exclusion and this needs to be addressed.– Liam Cini O'Dwyer

I was thrilled that my interviewers for the PhD thought me capable of doing this, and humbled to be awarded the Rosalind Driver Scholarship. It helps me not only to afford to study for the PhD but also allows me to continue to teach at my school, on a part-time basis. I started my PhD in October 2021, with the title: ‘Investigating issues of inclusion/exclusion in secondary school science education, using Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and other non-cisgender-heterosexual (LGBTI+) perspectives.’

I hope to survey LGBTI+ youth on their views on science education. I am interested to establish their sense of ‘belonging’ which has been found to be related to retention. Currently I plan to adapt the work of Rainey et al. (2018) who examined the intersections of race and gender with students’ self-reported sense of belonging.

By sense of belonging, I mean “students’ sense of being accepted, valued, included, and encouraged by others (teachers and peers) in the academic classroom setting and of feeling oneself to be an important part of the life and activity of the class” (Goodenow 1993, p. 80). Strayhorn (2012) has shown that a sense of belonging can have a significant impact on academic achievement, persistence and retention, and these impacts are frequently more pronounced for students from socially marginalised groups.

Conducting questionnaires and interviews with LGBTI+ and non-LGBTI+ students from diverse backgrounds from a range of secondary schools and sixth form colleges, I aim to study the experiences students indicate as contributing either to their continuing with science education or leaving science education for another field. Specifically, I currently aim to address the research questions:

  • To what extent do LGBTI+ youth (16-18-year-olds) report they feel they belong in their science field and what reasons do they give for belonging and not belonging?
  • How does sense of belonging in science compare for LGBTI+ students who persist in science A-levels and those who leave?
  • How does this sense of belonging compare with non-LGBTI+ students who have either continued in a science field and those who have not?

I am in the very early stages of my doctoral study and the details are not yet finalised. As I read and learn more this doctoral project will be subject to change so that it can better address the settled aims and confirmed research questions. Ultimately, my goal is to gain a greater understanding of why there is persistent underrepresentation of LGBTI+ people in science sectors, which the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM has extensively documented in its latest reports (see below in the bibliography).


I am very grateful to CRESTEM within the School of Education, Communications and Society at King’s for giving me the opportunity to study this PhD and for the platform to share with you this fantastic journey I have been on and am continuing.


APPG. (2020). Inquiry on Equity in STEM education: Final Report. London: All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM.

APPG. (2021). Equity in the STEM workforce. London: All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM.

Goodenow, C. (1993). Classroom belonging among early adolescent students: relationships to motivation and achievement. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 13(1), 21-43.

Rainey, K., Dancy, M., Mickelson, R., Stearns, E., & Moller, S. (2018). Race and Gender Differences in How Sense of Belonging Influences Decisions to Major in STEM. International Journal in STEM Education, 5(10), 1-14.

Stayhorn, T. (2012). College students' sense of belonging: a key to educational success for all students. New York: Routledge.

In this story

Liam Cini O'Dwyer

Liam Cini O'Dwyer

PhD Candidate

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