Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


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 ?

  Football—a tennis example is better.

  Motorbike—replace 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 girls.

  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 ideas—cosmology, teleportation etc and less interested in engineering applications of pure science. I would be sad to see these dropped—I 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 clientele—the students who study science are likely to form the group from which the computer scientists will come.

  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 real world.

  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 physics.

  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 syllabus requirement.

  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.

February 2002

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