Encouraging more women to pursue physics as a subject and a career may not only help to reduce the gender pay gap, it could also boost productivity and innovation in the industry, as Liz Whitelegg, chair of the Institute of Physics’ Diversity and Inclusion Committee, recently explained.
She said: “For many years, physics has recruited its students from a narrow pool of available talent – that of White, middle-class boys. Not only is this pool not large enough to supply the quantity of physics-trained people needed in the future, selection of talent from such a narrow pool is not able to utilise creative and divergent thinking that comes from including a range of people from a variety of backgrounds, with different characteristics and different ways of thinking and behaving.”
However, with recent research by the Department for Education (DfE) finding that the subject was overwhelmingly seen as “boring”, “irrelevant” and “male”, and revealing that just two per cent of girls’ A level entries are in physics, it is clear that secondary schools have an important part to play in breaking down common stereotypes and inspiring girls in physics before they leave compulsory schooling.
While this is certainly a challenge for schools, there are a wealth of options available to them to help make physics equally as appealing to girls and boys.
Recent discussions about the gender divide in physics have identified a lack of female role-models as a barrier to girls’ participation in science.
In addition a recent report by YouGov for lobbying group ScienceGrrl found that the majority of those surveyed could not name one living female role-model in science.
Most of us will have heard of Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, or Lise Meitner, who is recognised as having helped to discover nuclear fission, but what about the role-models of the 21st century?
Bringing female role-models to the forefront of science education is extremely important, as it helps to break down the common stereotype that physics is a male subject and instead creates an ethos of “physics is for everyone”.
Schools could look in to setting up a mentoring programme specifically for female students, where they are able to have an open line of communication with someone who actually works in the industry or who is at university studying physics.
Identifying females in science and, even better, helping students to reach out to these role-models could make all the difference in helping girls to feel as though a career in physics is within their grasp.
Careers guidance a priority
Opening up channels of communication between students and female physicists is extremely important to challenge stereotypes and to provide pupils with an insight into the working world.
This can also be done in school by ensuring students have access to expert careers advice, perhaps through the schools careers service or by arranging for a working physicist to come in and discuss where a physics degree could lead.
Physics can be applied in an array of professions, such as astronomy, medicine, game design and finance. Students could find themselves analysing a crime scene, working as a sound engineer or helping to solve complex medical problems.
Making students aware of the broad spectrum of jobs available in physics can help to generate interest in the subject, as students can see how what they are learning relates to the real-world, as well as how it ties in with other subjects they might enjoy.
To optimise the impact of this, careers advice should be just as focused on those in years 7 to 9 as those in their final years of secondary school.
If schools can encourage students to think about their place in the world of physics sooner rather than later, more are likely to progress through the education system with an active interest in the subject.
It is all very well teaching theory out of a textbook, but it is equally as important to then give students the opportunity to test these ideas themselves. Getting students to take the lead in making their own discoveries can help to increase engagement as it allows pupils to find their own niche in the subject and is also key to providing students with the right skills for the working environment.
Through being involved in the European Union-funded Inspiring Science Education project I have had the opportunity to speak with a number of teachers and to find out what activities have worked well for them. Here are some ideas.
Using new technologies to make learning more visual can help make physics more appealing to all students, by enabling them to better grasp complex scientific concepts.
For example, it is very easy to actually show pupils how sound travels using data-logging and graphical analysis software. To do this, you should position a microphone next to a large plastic drainpipe and when you click your fingers, the sound sends a signal down to a plate on the floor at the bottom, which then bounces back up to the microphone.
The data-logging and graphical analysis software will then automatically record and display the results on the computer, enabling students to see clearly and in detail how sound travels.
Activities do not have to be confined to the classroom; with wireless data-collection software available for use with portable devices, including iPad, Android and Google Chromebook, students can think outside the box when testing theories.
For example, using specialist video software, they could film each other on a wireless device playing basketball and then use the software to measure the trajectory and velocity of the motions.
Giving students some autonomy in what activities they use to test theories can help to boost interest among girls by giving them the opportunity to find their own enjoyment in physics.
Extra-curricular activities such as school trips and after-school clubs are a great way to help physics come to life. It is important to ensure that any activities are gender neutral and do not alienate girls or reinforce the stereotype of physics as a male subject.
Activities such as visiting a theme park, for example, can work very well as it can encourage students to think about physics in a new way, enabling them to have a fun day out while also discovering how scientific concepts such as energy and circular motion play an important part in how rollercoasters work.
Increasing the number of women pursuing a career in physics is a long-standing challenge, but one that is certainly not out of reach. However the drive to impassion girls in physics needs to begin at school, before they leave compulsory education and make subject choices that will likely determine their future career path.
By making a few simple changes, such as placing more emphasis on the work of female physicists, strengthening careers advice and innovating teaching methods, schools can help to create a strong, diverse and more equal workforce who are ready to lead the future of STEM industries.
Vincent English is managing director of Vernier Europe, one of the partners of the European Union-funded Inspiring Science Education project. For more information, visit www.inspiring-science-education.net