Improving the gender imbalance in A-level physics

GooglePhysicist3

Typing “Physicist” into Google image search can be summed up in three words: pale, male and stale [7].

Since the turn of the millennium, uptake in the A-level STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths)  has started to make a come back [1].

STEM_Alevels

In 2012 the 3rd most popular A-level subject in the UK for boys was physics (27,148 entries). For comparison, A-level physics only ranked 18th for girls (7,361 entries) [1]. Alas, girls only make up around 20% of a typical A-level physics classroom – indeed this low ratio has persisted for a number of decades [2].

BoysGirlsPhysics

In the latest 2015 statistics from the Joint Council for Qualifications, the gender imbalance for A-level physics was the second worst, only outdone by A-level computing.

BoyVsGirls2015subjects

Considering science (double award or separate sciences) is compulsory for all boys AND girls at GCSE, why should girls interest in physics drop off so suddenly at A-level (even though they show similar attainment to boys at GCSE)?

Research from the Institute of Physics has revealed some of the important issues that underlie these worrying statistics [2]:

  • It can’t be assumed that in the current National Curriculum, all students, particularly girls, are gaining meaningful access to physics.
  • Students’ interest in science declines as they progress through their GCSE years, particularly for girls and particularly in physics.
  • Girls, more than boys, experience a difference between their personal goals for learning and the learning goals of the physics curriculum. As a consequence they are less inclined to opt for A-level physics, even if they achieve high grades at GCSE.
  • As they go through school, students experience physics to be increasingly difficult. This perception is in part due to the mathematical demands of the subject but also to girls’ developing feeling of “not being able to do physics” even though this in not borne out in their performance at GCSE.

The solution….?

So, what can be done to address this issue? How do secondary school physics teachers go about improving the gender balance in our subject?

Well, the Institute of Physics has done some sterling work to understand and address the issue of girls’ under-representation in physics in post-16 education [2,3]. They have even produced a drama that shows two teachers struggling to change their teaching to “save” their student Nellie’s interest in physics…..

To summarise the ending of the video, to keep girls interested in physics, and ultimately increase uptake post-16, physics teachers need to:

  1. Make physics relevant to students every day lives
  2. Break up crowds and make up teams – groups of no more than 3, boys can take over in practical work so consider all girl groups, or alternatively, assign individual roles so everyone can actively participate
  3. Run with the student’s (rather than teacher’s) ideas…see where they lead. Sometimes you may be surprised how good they can be!
  4. Know their students – what are they good at outside of your subject?
  5. Be passionate about their subject! (an easy win here)

Indeed, while all of the above points are very relevant, I would go further and include a further 7 strategies:

6. Inform career paths

Girls are more likely to forward plan so links to careers are an effective engagement tool for them. Even if students aren’t sure what they would like to go on to do (at university), an A-level in maths or the sciences which are facilitating subjects, are an excellent choice for any student who wants to go onto higher education since they open up doors to the vast majority of undergraduate courses [1].

Facilitating

Certainly, when I spoke to my top set Year 11 physics class, the majority of students were unaware of where a physics A-level/degree could take you. They were genuinely surprised when I went through all the job opportunities afforded to them by physics [5]. The girls were particularly interested in careers that involved caring for others such as a medical physicists (radiographer/sonographer) and environmental scientists, careers that were multidisciplinary in nature (science journalist, university researcher), or  especially careers that involved the space industry.

Interestingly, the fact that physics graduates often outperform the majority of other  graduates in terms of salary – girls seemed to place little value on this.

7. Role models (sixth formers and parents)

When girls are in the process of selecting their A-level subjects they tend to be heavily influenced by two particular groups:

  1. Their peers
  2. Their parents

In respect of their peer group, girls often decide as a collective what subjects they want to study at A-level. They are unlikely to take up a subject if no-one on their peer group will be in the class. To this end you need a critical number of girls to take an interest in A-level physics to get any in your class at all!  In order to show Year 11 girls that A-level physics is an option for them it is useful to present them with strong female role-models. This could be in the form of successful female physicists [6], or even better, asking your female Year 13 students if they would chat to your Year 11 class for 20-30 minutes about their (positive) experiences of physics in the sixth form.

Parents are another heavy influence on any teenagers life when choosing A-level subjects. Worryingly, when parents were asked “What type of job would you most like your child to pursue when they finish their education?”, parents veered towards engineer/scientist for their sons and teacher/nurse/fashion designed for their daughters [7,8]:

Parents

This just goes to show not only is it important to educate students about careers advice, but also educate their parents. This could be done at parents’ evenings or even sixth-form open days/evenings.

8. Teacher feedback

“Boys are often criticised about their behaviour rather than the quality of their work so they retain confidence in their ability despite criticism. Girls receive less negative feedback than boys but this is focused on their work.

Where both sexes were given the sort of feedback most often given to girls, both sexes tended to lose confidence in their academic abilities.

Girls tend to be praised more for hard work and good behaviour where as boys get praised more for ideas and understanding.

When girls do badly they tend to blame themselves, when boys do badly they tend to blame external factors.”

– Rachel Hartley [1,4]

So how do we rectify this in the classroom? Rachel Hartley from the Stimulating Physics Network suggests it is very important to really value girls’ ideas and positively praise them (above that of their work). A good teacher-student relationship where girls feel their ideas are valued enhances girls’ overall attitudes to physics.

9. Use of language

Removing unconscious gender bias

This year I have taken great care when teaching physics to my classes to weed out any unconscious gender bias. What do I mean by unconscious gender bias? Well, physics tends to lend itself to situations where it is very easy to unconsciously use male language when explaining things. For example, talking about “levers” you may start your lesson talking about a (male) mechanic using a lever to undue the bolt on a car tyre, or teaching “conservation of momentum” using a soldier firing a gun at a target, or even something as simple as drawing male stick figures on the whiteboard. To this end I have done my utmost to ensure I remove this unconscious gender bias – for example, when teaching the conservation of momentum, why not use the example of Katniss (of Hunger Games fame) firing an arrow from her bow…?

Using positive language

We have recently published our new sixth form prospectus with two pages detailing the course specifics for each A-level subject. Last year’s physics page started with …

Physics at A-Level is a demanding but rewarding subject…

Don’t consider this course if……

  • You think it will be easy
  • You’re not willing to work hard“,

…..we have found that rather than saying how difficult a subject is, much better to promote the positive aspects of the subject. You can say that a course is tricky but us more student friendly language. This year the same page begins…

Physics is crucial to understanding the world around us, the world inside us, and the world beyond us. You will study everything from quarks to quantum mechanics, from fusion to force fields, from singularities to supernovae! Physics underpins all the other sciences and therefore everything around us. If you’ve always asked “Why does that happen?” then this is the A-level for you.

Consider studying this course if…

  • You are considering applying to a Russell Group University and want a well respected A-level that will facilitate application to an extremely wide range of degree courses
  • You want to study a subject that will both ask (and answer) the deepest and most profound questions of the universe.
  • You are taking A-level Maths or another science (Chemistry, Biology) A-level.”

10. School trips

School trips are a source of wonder for every student. At our school we are very lucky to run the following trips:

This year I am fortunate to take my Y11 to GCSE Science Live where I hope all the students will be inspired by the professional scientists there. I am especially looking forward to seeing Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock a female space scientist – it doesn’t get any better than that for positive female science role models!

11. School assemblies

So far I have mainly talked about the activities based around my physics GCSE classes (Years 9-11) to promote girls taking A-level physics in Years 12 & 13. However, there is a lot to be said about inspiring students for a love of physics from a younger age (Years 7 & 8 in my school). Since physics teachers are quite a rare commodity we don’t often get much (if any) time to teach physics at Key Stage 3 and mainly concentrate on the exam groups in Years 10/11/12 & 13. However, since we are fortunate to have a school assembly every day, this does provide an excellent platform to inspire these younger year groups. Again, these younger year groups absolutely love space and particle physics, so why not engage that enthusiasm? Some recent assemblies I have given this/last year:

The day the Earth smiled:

DayEarthSmiled

“Look again at that dot. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” – Carl Sagan

 My visit to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN:

LHC

An assembly on Tim Peake’s launch to the International Space Station:

TimPeake

 12. Extra-curricular space balloon club

Finally, to jump off the back of the success and excitement around Tim Peake’s five month stay on the ISS and the students (particularly girls) interest in space in general (this seems to be their favourite physics topic), we have partnered up with European Astrotech to run a High Altitude Balloon (HAB) project. This is an educational project for students to gain first-hand experience of planning and designing their own scientific experiments which will be launched on a high altitude balloon from the school field to the edge of space, followed by the collection, analysis and presentation of their results. A short clip produced by European Astrotech can be found below:

While this project was initially intended for Year 12/13 physicists only, it proved so popular with the students (especially sixth form girls) that it was extended so that we will be conducting a double space balloon launch, hopefully towards the beginning of April….watch this space.

To conclude

So that’s it,  twelve different strategies to implement over the course of the rest of this academic year to improve the gender imbalance in A-level physics. I’ll feedback in September 2016 to let you know if it worked with our new Year 12 intake…….!

**********************UPDATE **********************

April 2017:

Have just read a great article by Sally Weatherly (@SallyWeatherly1) from Guzled on “Why Do Girls Fear Physics?“‏. She has produced a wonderful whitepaper on the issue with practical tips to help girls be more confident in this subject. The whitepaper can be found in her article or here.

 

References

  1. Girls and the physics classroom Rachel Hartley, Stimulating Physics Network
  2. Girls in the Physics Classroom (Dec 2006) Institute of Physics
  3. Gender Balance Institute of Physics
  4. Physics is for girls – opening doors Liz Swinbank, University of York 
  5. Careers in physics (Physics.org)
  6. Women in physics (American Physical Society)
  7. IOP NQT Conf 2015: Girls in Physics (10min YouTube clip)
  8. Improving Diversity in STEM (May 2014) Campaign for Science & Engineering

 

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