Could more girls choose physics?

Could more girls choose physics?

Physicists are not known for their emotional outbursts. But the comments of headteacher and social mobility commissioner Katharine Birbalsingh made many hot under the collar. She told a government committee that the reason so few girls choose A-level physics is because they find the maths too hard.

Of course that’s not a major cause - girls are just as good at maths as boys. But the hoohah obscured the important issue: are we doing the right things to increase the proportion of girls doing A-level physics beyond the 20% it is now? Or, as Katherine implied, is 20% a kind of physical constant?

It’s not like schools and STEM supporters haven’t been trying. There are thousands of STEM events, competitions, visits, and the like every year to promote physics. But this ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ approach is not very strategic. To fix the imbalance, we need to know the real reasons why girls don’t opt for physics.

Real reasons

Girls are put off by male-dominated subjects and careers

One reason of course is that physics and many careers in engineering and computer science are male-dominated. Gwynne Shotwell may be the female CEO of SpaceX. But there’s no getting round the fact that she is surrounded by a launch room full of men. This imbalance creates a stereotype that no doubt puts off many girls. IOP have tried to reverse this with ‘improving gender balance’ project (IOP, 2017) using a whole school, intensive approach. It did manage to boost the numbers of girls taking physics - at least in heavily invested, research schools.

But I don’t think the problem is just about physics being dominated by males. It’s also the nature of the subject and how it’s taught, and that is something we can alter.

Physics isn’t relevant to the goals of many girls

Research tells us that boys and girls differ in their motivations for learning science. According to Krogh and Thomsen (2005), students can be categorised as either: ‘absorbers’, who study science to become wiser, ‘conquerors’ who use it to advance their personal aspirations or ‘saviours’ who see science as a way to do good and help others. As you’ve probably guessed, saviour types are mostly girls. Since physics is usually presented as a set of theoretical principles with a sprinkling of applications, is it any surprise that girls opt for subjects that are more people-oriented?

Girls prefer the social world to the physical one

Interest is a big factor when students choose their subjects - it might even be number one (Levy, 2003). When it comes to science, girls tend to be drawn towards biology and environmental science, while boys tend show more interest in physical sciences.

Research shows that the difference in interest starts in toddlerhood, with boys showing a greater preference for mechanical toys. Unfortunately it only widens in adolescence. Although both sexes tend to become more interested in the social world and less interested in the physical, the shift is more dramatic in girls (Hoff et al 2018). This clearly puts physics at a disadvantage when it comes to keeping girls on board.

More girl appeal

How can we give physics more girl appeal? Both the lack of relevance and people-focussed applications can be remedied through imaginative curriculum design.

Put more human contexts into physics

Topics like forces, energy, and electromagnetism are full of social applications. That means we can choose to introduce concepts as ideas that we need to solve a human problem. We don’t have to leave them as purely abstract and theoretical.

This is the approach we take in our Complete Mastery course. For instance, friction starts as a challenge to design non-slip soles that will reduce the number of accidents. Thinking about how to solve this inevitably leads to needing to learn how friction works.

I know some teachers don’t like teaching in the context of solving a problem and claim that it leads to ‘cognitive overload’ and less learning. Although untrue, it does require skillful design to ensure students switch between conceptual and contextual thinking. Research suggests there is a payoff - students are more likely to transfer what they learn to new situations.

Provide simulated experience of people-oriented careers

You’ll often see physics promoted as a way to make a positive difference in the world. That may be true, but it’s a bit of a stretch for GCSE students, who spend their time pushing trolleys and stretching springs. They need a bit more help to imagine what a physics-based career would be like. That’s why in our Complete Mastery course, we sometimes put students into the role of an engineer. For instance in the year 8 topic of voltage, students go through the design cycle to make a better toaster, as they learn about series and parallel circuits.

It may be we can never make physics as attractive to girls as it to boys. But we can make their lesson-by-lesson experience relevant to their life goals and interests. Done consistently over the five years of secondary school, it could make physics significantly more attractive as a choice for further study.

Try these

Energy savers

Students apply knowledge of energy transfer and wasted energy to help an inventor design a device to reduce home energy use and carbon emissions and write the crowd-funding webpage to raise money from investors.

Our black hole

Use the activity and get Dr Becky to provide an enthusiastic explanation of the physics


Comments (1)

Gret - May 24, 2022

I’m a biology teacher and have had to switch to physics due to staff shortages over the last 5 years. I just finished my physics qualifications with the IOP and open uni, I teach in a very different way. I have so many female students wanting to do physics!!! Maybe we need to shake up who is teaching it?

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