What works for girls in the physics classroom?

A London school hosts a discussion workshop on girls in science and engineering

We all know that the percentage of girls progressing to physics A level and beyond remains stubbornly low. The question is, and has been for many years, why and consequently what can and should be done? The reasons given are myriad and interconnected, some arising in the classroom but many with their roots outside school. In 2012, the IOP produced its report looking at the effect schools have in facilitating progression from GCSE to A level for boys and girls. Many schools apparently fail to see a single girl moving on to continue with the subject. Last December the IOP produced another report which looked at six subjects at A level, three (including physics) seen as stereotypically ‘for boys’ and three for girls (including biology and English). This Closing Doors report showed that schools varied widely in whether or not schools propagated stereotypical choices. Based on these reports, and with no intention of teacher-bashing (as was implied in some of the comments on my Guardian blog on the subject) it would seem that some schools are more effective in helping boys and girls to consider the less-typical subjects. Getting boys to do English A level seems a similar challenge to getting girls to do physics, and may equally prove detrimental to individual children.

These are complex issues. What works in UK education may not be the same as for other countries but it’s certainly worth looking at what they are doing and what evidence studies show up. A recent paper from the US has just been published exploring different possible ways to encourage girls to stick with physical science. Appearing in Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education it considers five different possible interventions and attempts to separate out the confounding variables. The five actions explored were (i) having a single-sex physics class, (ii) having a female physics teacher, (iii) having female scientist guest speakers in physics class, (iv) discussing the work of female scientists in physics class, and (v) discussing the underrepresentation of women in physics class. All of these look at first sight to be plausible candidates for improving the uptake of physics, yet this study indicates that only the last has a statistically significant effect. The trouble is, as the authors thoroughly examine in their introduction, earlier studies give results which don’t at first sight appear compatible with each other – or indeed with this study. This makes it very difficult to come up with a unique, simple solution that will work everywhere.

In the 2012 It’s Different for Girls report, single sex schools seemed to do a much better job of getting girls to stick with physics but, at least part of the effect is likely to be due to the types of schools and their intake which makes it hard to be sure just how big the effect may intrinsically be. This is what I mean by confounding variables. In the most recent US study I refer to above, it is suggested that single sex teaching may have only a limited effect unless the curriculum/material taught is also varied. Changing the way the material is presented is a topic that has been explored previously here, in which a Luxembourg-based study considered the effects of ‘feminising’ science teaching. This study claimed that changing the way the subject was presented did have a significant effect, stating that the mean level of girls’ scientific interest was higher when scientific concepts were presented in the context of feminine topics and boys’ level of scientific interests was higher when scientific concepts were presented in the context of masculine topics. So, the inference would be, single sex teaching might not be enough without modifying the material itself.

Role models are another obvious intervention to try. Either seeing many female physics teachers around or bringing in female students and practicing scientists to talk to classes and provide evidence that girls can indeed ‘do’ physics successfully look as if it’s a strategy that might work. But, if this latest US study is to be believed, its effect is modest. That may be a relief to some to hear, as (particularly if academics are sought) a few women may get an awful lot of invitations that they feel bad about turning down. I say that personally with some feeling!

Talking about the under-representation of women in science does appear, from this study at least, to make a real difference. The authors suggest that in fact when this happens other factors go hand in hand, including discussing practicing women scientists (i.e. role models) and also leading to debates about the positive aspects more women might bring to the field. This latter may serve to provide an example of a ‘self-affirmation’ statement that yet another 2010 study from the US showed could be very beneficial in countering so-called stereotype threat in physics classes. (This latter is a well-documented phenomenon arising when individuals are reminded that they are acting counter to stereotype, as with girls and physics and maths.) The most recent paper does not explicitly study self-affirmation, but the 2010 US study showed that just asking girls to spend 15 minutes writing about things they positively valued at the start of a physics course made a significant difference to their grades.

Clearly more study is needed in order to untangle what really works. However, my concern is that a physics class is made up of a very heterogeneous population. At GCSE it will include girls who already know they intend to be professional musicians and those who have always wanted to become engineers plus many ‘undecideds’ in between. What works for those at one end of the spectrum may be worse than useless at the other. If someone had tried to teach me a ‘feminised’ physics at 16 I feel sure it would have turned me off rather than inspired me to stick with the subject (see my further thoughts on this here). For others, maybe particularly those in the undecided category, perhaps it really could provide them a context for the lessons that enable them to make more sense of the subject. But at the moment I fear we are in rather the same position with these studies regarding the physics classroom that drug manufacturers are when testing new drugs. What works for one person, with one genetic make-up, may be ineffective or worse for someone else. The pharmaceutical industry is looking to personalised medicine and genetics to solve their problem. It isn’t clear to me physicists have anything like that even to aspire to. Undoubtedly more studies may help, but they may also confuse when schools and classes are so different. We have a long way to go before this problem is solved and our physics A level classes become more genuinely diverse across the educational landscape.

Athene Donald

Professor Dame Athene Donald is a Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College. Her research is in the general field of soft matter and physics at the interface of biology; she has published over 250 papers in these fields. In recent years she has become heavily involved with policy issues, ranging from chairing the Royal Society’s Education Committee to chairing the Scientific Advisory Council of DCMS.She served on University Council (2009-14) and was the University’s Gender Equality Champion (2010-14). She is currently a member of the Scientific Council of the ERC and a former Trustee of the Science Museum. As well as various prizes from the IOP and Royal Society, she won the 2009 L'Oreal/Unesco Laureate for Europe award.

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