Girls Do Physics

For over a quarter of a century only one in five pupils studying physics A-level in UK schools has been female. We have been working to understand and address this gender imbalance, publishing reports and developing resources to support teachers. We know that the greatest and most meaningful impact comes from a whole school approach, tackling gender stereotypes in staff and students at all levels and in all departments across schools (more details here).

At the same time, we were delighted to hear about an initiative from IOP Affiliated School St Helen and St Katharine (SHSK) near Oxford, whose physics department decided to play a part in correcting the balance locally.

SHSK head of physics Jane Edwards writes:

“We have run a ‘Girls do Physics’ programme for 30 top Year 9 girls from a neighbouring, mixed comprehensive school. These five sessions, spread throughout the year, have aimed to develop the girls’ confidence and interest, encouraging them to continue with physics beyond GCSE.

“The inaugural session focused on raising aspirations by presenting career opportunities available to those with a physics A-level. Six SHSK alumnae – studying accountancy and finance, civil engineering, engineering, material science, medicine and physics at university – gave short talks on the skills that A-level physics had provided and how it had informed their course and career choice.  The Y9 girls used the WISE People Like Me introductory activities and quiz to identify their preferred way of working based on their personality and aptitudes. Minds were clearly opened: “I’ve only ever thought of being a hairdresser,” said one girl at the end of the session.

“The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, stellar spectroscopy and the quest for exoplanets were on the agenda for the astrophysics workshop as the girls followed in the footsteps of significant women in astronomy and space exploration. They used LightGrapher software to model the ‘Transit’ method astronomers use to search for planets beyond the solar system. They then analysed data from the Kepler Telescope to try to find an exoplanet.

“A biophysics session explored the links between biology and physics focusing on extremophile organisms: as they can live in extreme conditions on Earth, could they exist in similarly hostile environments on Mars? After looking at how biotechnology improves life quality with devices such as pacemakers and intelligent prosthetic limbs, the girls were fascinated by the medical physics behind X-Ray, CAT, ultrasound and MRI scans.

“A hands-on ‘Float your Boat’ nautical engineering challenge encouraged girls to use mathematical modelling to investigate how the force of upthrust is affected by the shape and size of a vessel’s hull. Students then built their own boats out of tin foil, accurately predicting the load that their boats could hold.

“The final session again gave the girls the chance to wear their lab coats and make the most of SHSK’s new science laboratories as they investigated more practical applications of their current GCSE topic, energy resources and transfers. As they constructed solar-cell powered model boats and cars, the topical concept of renewable energy gave them food for thought about the need to find sustainable energy for the future and the role that they could play in this.

“Teachers at the partner school have commented that the girls have exhibited greater confidence when they have returned to their mixed gender physics classes.  In fact, there is an 8% increase in the uptake of triple science by girls in year 9 compared to the comparable year 8 group (who also chose their options this year).

“Although this obviously cannot be totally attributed to our efforts, the programme has been deemed a success and provision is already being planned for their Year 9 pupils next academic year, to embed new practical terminology. We wait to see the effect on any increase in A-level numbers in the future.”

Caroline Davis

Caroline is the IOP's Classroom Physics Editor.

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