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Girls and Physics; Physics and Girls

The Institute of Physics is on a drive to encourage more girls to take the subject at A-Level.

Physics is central to society and our every day lives so why is that girls are being left behind at school and not taking physics at A-Level? The Institute of Physics recently commissioned research to find out what’s happening and the results are more than startling.

Professor Sir Peter Knight, President of IOP, said, “Physics is a subject that opens doors to exciting higher education and career opportunities. This research shows that half of England’s co-ed comprehensives are keeping these doors firmly shut to girls.”

WHY IS PHYSICS SO IMPORTANT

Physics is highly regarded by higher education and employers as it develops a unique and valued way of thinking. It’s intellectually rewarding and given that we have a UK shortage in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills, more girls should take the subject at A-Level and beyond. Physics is the fourth most popular A-Level subject for boys in the UK but for girls, it’s way down the table, sitting in 19th place. So what needs to happen to address this massive shortfall and give girls the opportunity to learn a truly valuable subject at a higher level?



IT’S DIFFERENT FOR GIRLS

The report It’s Different for Girls demonstrates the imbalance in those taking the subject at A-Level. One of the main problems is gender stereotyping and both teachers and parents can help with this. The trouble is there are very few prominent female physicists on TV who can act as role models. In plain terms, it’s just not sexy enough and we, both educators and parents, need to change the perception of physics amongst teenage girls. These girls must understand that studying the subject gives them enormous advantages over their peers, it should be promoted more within schools. It needs to be taught in upbeat science facilities so that the subject is engaging. Most importantly, schools need to meet targets for both numbers and gender balance recruited to physics. For more information on how schools can help visit www.iop.org.

AT HOME

Parents too can help encourage the subject at home by creating a positive environment that questions the way things work. They can help their children understand gender stereotypes and give them the confidence to challenge them. They need to encourage their children to watch science programmes and to do this as a family. Family days out can also introduce physics and for information on events in your area, visit www.sciencecentres.org.uk. Many towns have science festivals offering events not just for children and families, but adults as well. For more information on how can parents support the take-up of A-Level physics by girls, visit www.iop.org.

PARENTS AND SCHOOL

Parents should question potential schools to ascertain that girls have access to all subjects. Find out the number of girls studying A-Level physics and the proportion of girls studying the subect at A-Level, the current national average is around 20%, all of which will give you a good idea of the school’s attitude to physics.

EXPLORE PHYSICS ONLINE

The World Wide Web was invented by the physicist, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and is home to a wealth of information about physics. Some of the best physics sites include:

www.physics.org – A curated guide to physics highlighting the best online content. Follow them on Twitter @dotrythisathome.
www.zooniverse.org – A collection of ‘citizen science' projects, which encourage members of the public to participate in scientific research. 
www.sixtysymbols.com – A series of quirky short films that seek to explain the abundance of squiggles and letters used by physicists.
www.wired.com/wiredscience/dotphysics – A blog that applies physics to solving everyday conundrums.
www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00lwxj1 – Watch clips from the BBC TV show Bang Goes the Theory.

FOUNDATION

A physics A-Level or degree is an excellent foundation for a number of careers and is not restricted to white coats working in a lab. The IOP’ video interviews couldn’t demonstrate this more clearly with a Masterchef Finalist working on a physics based PhD, a professional poker player and a gymnast turned physicist, all of which are thoroughly inspiring.



Parents can help children with career aspirations and encourage physics-based careers. Online resources include www.physics.org, www.futuremorph.org and www.theukrc.org, all of which explore the range of careers that are open to people with physics qualifications.



FURTHER RESOURCES

To see the report in full: It's Different for Girls: The influence of schools 

Briefing Sheets

For senior school leaders: It's Different for Girls: How can senior leaders in schools support the take-up of A-level physics by girls? 

For parents: It's Different for Girls: How can parents support the take-up of A-level physics by girls? 

4 October 2012

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