Physics is different for girls…

The Institute of Physics (in the UK) has just released this report looking at the uptake of the physics A-level  (done in the final two years at secondary school) by girls.  The report, titled ‘It’s different for girls‘ makes for some very interesting and perhaps dismal reading.  While it’s a UK report, not a NZ, I have little reason to think that the results would be vastly different in NZ. Moreover, given that the NZ Institute of Physics isn’t knee-deep in used hundred dollar notes (being the Waikato NZIP contact person I have some idea) I don’t think NZIP will be replicating the study here, so this one will have to do.

Here are the key findings, lifted more or less straight out of the report:

1. Uptake of physics A-level by girls is really low.  Nearly half of all schools had no girls doing physics A-level.

2. There is a huge difference in uptake of physics A-level amongst girls at a girls’ school, as opposed to girls at a co-ed school. A girl in the former group is two-and-a-half times more likely to study physics at A-level compared to a girl in the latter group. Interestingly, this difference is not seen in chemistry and biology.

3. Girls coming from a school which has a sixth-form (i.e. one that offers the final two years) had twice the likelihood of choosing physics compared to girls who had to move to a sixth-form college for their final two years of study.

So, as the title of the report says, physics is somehow different for girls. How? Why? What can be done? These are big questions. There is a strong suggestion that there is a lot of stereotyping going on – the impression given that physics is not for girls. This is particularly true at a co-ed school. That might not be deliberate on the part of the teachers (and the implication from the report is that it’s not just the physics teachers to blame for this), but the overall message the girls get is that physics is not a place where girls live.

The report suggests that parents should use the percentage of girls taking physics at the school as an indication of how well the school teaches physics. I’d be interested into delving deeper into this one. Is it true that better physics teaching means a higher percentage of girls will be involved? Interestingly, in my physics degree at Cambridge, there were approximately 100 male students in the third year, and exactly one female student. Does this mean that the teaching I got at Cambridge was really bad?

How do we counter this?  A lot of examples of physics-in-action are inherently boy-focused. Cars, for whatever reason, do seem to be more boy-ish than girl-ish, and cars do make nice, easy examples to use in much of physics. We, the teachers, may need to be a little less lazy in our selection of contexts in which we present the physics.

How am I shaping up? After all, this blog is intended to show physics in action – that is, physics is something for everyone. Including girls. So, a quick flick through the past few entries reveals that I’ve talked about:  Galaxies, hobbits, cats, the Higgs Boson, Auckland, our most utterly adorable baby, static electricity, time travel in a car (tut, tut on this one), neutrinos, building with reinforced concrete, who owns water? (Oops, I mean, who has rights to water?), Brownian motion, testing students …

I don’t think that’s desperately male-centric, but you judge for yourself.


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