Memorandum submitted by the Women in Physics
Group, Institute of Physics
Generally speaking, the fact that now fewer
and fewer students, boys and girls, want to study science and
engineering might mean that we need to "re-define science"
and make science more "public friendly".
I agree that we have to use different examples
from our everyday life. But we might need to include examples
from a wider range of applied physics:
eg physics + finance, physics + law, physics + biology
(very fashionable), physics + medicine, etc.
However, at the same time I think that we should
include more maths as a main part of preparing science students.
Also, I definitely believe that more practical
work will help; it is always much more exciting! Maybe universities,
research centres and schools should collaborate more closely there!
It is a truism that the girls make up half the
population and are likely to have interests that are as diverse
as the boys.
However there are one or two topics that many
girls do not find appealing and it would be as well to avoid them.
In all cases there are perfectly good gender neutral examples
that could be used instead.
Billiards (many books describe collisions in
terms of billiard balls) replace by shove ha'penny ?
Footballa tennis example is better.
Motorbikereplace with pedal bike and
avoid anything military.
Of course many people will be able to quote
examples of girls who were mad on football and motorbikes but
I think it is as well to avoid topics that may disenchant some
Maybe my examples are not up-to-date. However
I do feel strongly that any new syllabus should be tried out and
any ideas/examples that were not appealing to girls as well as
boys should be dropped.
Many girls are interested in the big ideascosmology,
teleportation etc and less interested in engineering applications
of pure science. I would be sad to see these droppedI think
students should be taught about the excitement of science. Many
good students are turned on by this.
Science should be taught with computers. It
is important that girls are encouraged to feel at home with computers
and computer graphics etc can enliven most topics! Also it is
in part the same clientelethe students who study science
are likely to form the group from which the computer scientists
It is not a female issue but I would like to
see more use of mathematics. It would be good if there could be
a maths stream/option for students studying any science who was
also studying maths. This should include biology as well as the
physical sciences. (At the risk of providing yet another anecdote
I can tell you of the disgust my daughter felt when she was taking
further maths A level to be given a maths formula book in A level
biology and told that she did not need to understand any of it.)
Girls have to be interested and by involving
cross-curricular links we are getting there. As part of the Liverpool
Telescope Project we are linked to a Japanese and a Russian school.
We exchange letters between students at the moment only cultural
differences are explored but we are having linguists from John
Moore's University to teach us some Russian and Japanese (all
in our science lessons or lunchtimes). As the link progresses
we will deal with topics on Astronomy we have already seen photos
of asteroids from our Japanese friends. The Russians have asked
us to investigate G Alcock, a British astronomer. Although there
are boys involved who are keen, it is the enthusiasm of the girls
which makes it all worth while.
Science doesn't have to be boring it can involve
travel but more importantly it involves people.
We have also had a lady who works at Daresbury
labs talking about careers at the labs. Again exposing pupils
to another way of looking at science.
Unpublished findings from a Study into the Reasons
why girls do not continue in Physics. Conducted at St Peter's
College Oxford 2002
During April to June 2001 I spent a term at
St Peter's College Oxford as a Schoolteacher Fellow. I researched
into reasons why girls drop out from physics at each stage of
the educational process by distributing questionnaires and by
interviewing individuals. I felt that there have been several
studies looking at successful routes taken by women physicists
but little work on why women decide to leave physics at each stage
in higher proportions than men. This leaking sieve situation is
well documented. As women progress to each stage of the educational
ladder they make up a smaller percentage. (With the notable exception
that the fraction staying on to post graduate studies is now encouraging.)
Even now, when all pupils take some physics to the age of 16,
the number of girls taking physics beyond the age of 16 is not
increasing so that women make up only approximately 20 per cent
of physics undergraduates nationally.
I found that only one in six of the 948 female
students at Oxford, who had passed A level physics, were studying
physics. I sent questionnaires to all of these girls. Also, I
sent questions to some boys in order to be able to make a comparison.
In this letter, I will deal only with the responses from those
NOT reading physics as these seem most relevant to your enquiry.
Many replies indicated that they had been disappointed by A level
physics and had neither found it inspiring nor relevant to the
From the answers I was able to see that a large
number had not chosen Physics degrees for positive reasons ie
they wanted a career involving another subject. However, I had
a large number of responses indicating that they had been interested
in a physics based career at the time of choosing their A levels.
Then, their experiences during the sixth-form had made them decide
against taking physics further! The syllabus content for topics
such as electromagnetism had put many of them off.
A number of girls indicated that it had been
an interest in astronomy that had drawn them towards physics.
This is more generally demonstrated by the popularity of Physics
with astronomy courses at universities. At A level few have the
opportunity to take astronomy options. Even then these options
have a considerable amount of optics included rather than giving
a taste of the more fascinating aspects of astronomy. I think
that some astronomy should be included in the core of A level
A high proportion of girls who are not reading
physics or using physics knowledge think that there are few career
opportunities in physics. From their answers, girls plan well
ahead and unless they have the opportunity to visit universities
and research establishments they think there are no careers in
physics. Girls are often inspired to take physics after attending
a university "Taster" event. There, they have opportunities
to meet physics which is beyond their school experience and discuss
their understanding with university staff. Opportunities for school
pupils to visit university departments should be included as a
Over half of the female students reading physics
had close relatives in science or engineering and the fraction
for boys was greater.
(From Office of Science and Technology SET figures:14
per cent of working population have higher Education Qualifications.
39 per cent of these are qualified scientists or engineers. From
these the percentage of the working population who have science
or engineering qualifications is of the order of 5.46 per cent).
This implies that there is a reliance on the
family to inspire young people with an interest in physics which
puts a large proportion of pupils at a disadvantage.
Many indicated that they thought that degree
courses in physics are difficult or expressed the feeling that
they would be unable to maintain the required standard. These
replies came from girls with A grade passes at A level physics!!
It is unfortunate that physics has gained the label of being the
hardest A level. For those who have good spatial perception and
who are mathematical, physics is easier than most A levels!
There were also many comments from both boys
and girls which indicated that A level physics had been boring
and that it appeared to have no connection with the real world.
These responses indicated the failure of the present syllabuses
to enable intelligent young people to make the connection. Notable
exceptions were comments from those who had studied the Institute
of Physics, Advancing Physics or the Salter's Syllabi. Girls enjoy
practical work which enables them to build their confidence and
clarify their understanding of physics principles. They happily
use computers to collect data but do not like practical work with
a heavy mechanical emphasis.
The replies demonstrated that the present syllabi
do not enable girls to gain an appreciation of the excitement
and relevance of physics nor do they indicate the great range
of career possibilities from a physics education.
Having taught physics to girls aged between
11 and 18 for approaching 30 years, the results of my study agree
with my experiences. I found that visits to Daresbury Laboratory,
CLRC, were inspirational. There they saw research in many branches
of physics and were fascinated by the explanations particularly
of medical physics experiments given by professional physicists.
The Physics Olympics, held annually at Liverpool University, where
they had to think of practical solutions to challenges, were very
popular, giving new confidence to participants. I am at present
starting a study at Liverpool University to enable me to make
a comparison with my conclusions from Oxford.