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It’s time to ‘open up physics’ if we want to bring in more girls and shift the subject’s declining uptake

RebekahHayes5 September 2018

Physics building entrance sign at UCL

Despite numerous campaigns over many years, getting more students to study physics after GCSE remains a huge challenge. The proportion of students in the UK taking physics at A level is noticeably lower than those studying other sciences. This low uptake of physics, particularly by girls, has implications not only for the national economy, but for equity, especially as it can be a valuable route to prestigious, well-paid careers.

The latest research from ASPIRES 2 explores why students do or do not continue with physics by focusing on students who could have chosen physics, but opted for other sciences instead.

ASPIRES 2 is a 10-year longitudinal study, tracking children’s science and career aspirations from ages 10–19. This briefing focuses on data collected when students were in Year 11 (ages 15/16), a key year for students in England as they make decisions about their next steps, including which subjects to pursue at A level. Over 13,445 Year 11 students were surveyed and we also carried out interviews with a smaller number of students and parents, all previously tracked through ASPIRES.

Students were then classified into those who were planning to study A level physics and those who were intending to study biology and chemistry but not physics.

Who Chooses Physics?

The profiles of the science students who did and did not plan to take physics were very similar, especially in terms of ethnicity, cultural capital, family science background and attainment.

Overall, both groups were more likely to be Asian or Middle Eastern and have higher levels of cultural capital, compared with those not planning to study science. They were also likely to be in the top set for science and have family members working in science.

The biggest difference between the groups was gender. Of the students surveyed who were intending to study A levels, 42% were male and 58% were female. However, among physics students, 65% were male and 35% were female. Put differently, 36% of boys were planning to study A level Physics but only 14% of girls were planning to do so, a highly significant difference.

Reasons for A Level Choices

In both the survey and interviews, students were asked about their reasons for their A level choices.

All A level science students chose usefulness, enjoyment and ‘to help me get into university’ as their top reasons. However, we identified the following key areas of difference:

  • Enjoyment of physics

Physics students were significantly more likely to report enjoyment of physics as a primary reason for choosing the subject, compared to their non-physics counterparts.

Maths and physics – I just chose them cos I enjoy those subjects… Because most sort of degrees or whatever just require maths and physics. (Bob, physics A level student)

  • The abstract nature of physics

While both groups of students regarded the subject as abstract (‘things you can’t experience or see’), this abstractness was actually part of the appeal for some physics choosers, whereas it was not so appealing to non-physics students.

With theoretical physics you can go like really complicated and just, like, you know, mind-blowing. (Davina, physics A level student)

  • Mathematics

Both groups of students were aware of the link between maths and physics but they differed in the extent to which they liked and felt good at maths. 76% of physics students agreed that maths is one of their best subjects, whilst this was the case for only 22% of non-physics students.

  • Difficulty

73% of non-physics students described the subject as the area of science they found most difficult, compared to 22% of physics students.

  • Perceived usefulness

Students differed in the extent to which they saw physics as being necessary for future aspirations. For example, 12 of the 13 students interviewed who wanted to study A level physics expressed aspirations that were linked to physics, with over half interested in engineering.

In contrast, 86% of surveyed students who wanted to study biology or chemistry expressed an interest in being a doctor/working in medicine, for which physics was not seen as necessary, as this student elucidated:

Physics isn’t actually quite needed for forensic [science]… but chemistry, biology and English is needed. (Vanessa, non-physics student)

It appears that students wanting to study A level physics find the subject personally relevant to their future careers, rather than just valuable or useful in a broader sense.

  • Identity

For students wanting to study A level physics, high attainment and the ‘hard’, exceptional nature of the subject fitted well with their identity, making them well suited for a subject with a difficult, distinctive (‘mind-blowing’) image.

What Now?

Our findings emphasise just how deep-seated the issue of equitable physics participation is. Simply ‘making physics more interesting’ or emphasising its relevance to everyday life is not enough, especially to increase uptake by students from underrepresented groups.

More work must be done to address the perceptions and choices influenced by the shared image of physics.

We call for the opening up of physics. For example, in the UK, there are disproportionate grade requirements for entry into physics. This restricts who is allowed to choose physics and reinforces the idea of physics as ‘hard’, so students are more likely to see the subject as ‘not for me’.

The syllabus should be re-examined and restructured to be more attainable and relevant for a wider range of students.

We also propose changes to the way science—and physics in particular—is taught in the classroom. Our sister project Enterprising Science has developed the Science Capital Teaching Approach, which aims to make student engagement and participation in science more equitable. This approach includes broadening what is recognised and valued in the science classroom, drawing on students’ own experiences and contributions.

Ultimately, big changes are needed, not tweaks, if we are going to shift the inequitable and declining uptake of physics.

 

This blog is a summary of the following open access article: DeWitt, J., Archer, L. & Moote. (2018). 15/16-Year-Old Students’ Reasons for Choosing and Not Choosing Physics at A Level. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education. doi: 10.1007/s10763-018-9900-4.

Photo: Mary Hinkley,  © UCL digital media

(Why) is femininity excluded from science?

JasonIlagan18 November 2016

— Emily MacLeod

The lack of gender diversity within science is well documented and well researched. Many have attempted to pinpoint the reasons for the lack of women participating in science, and/or generate methods to solve the sector’s lack of diversity. However, whilst there remains a great deal of focus on the subject of Women in Science, discussion is lacking when it comes to the role femininity plays within this.

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ASPIRES Book now out!

JasonIlagan10 October 2016

Our new book, based on the findings of the first phase of our project (ASPIRES), is now out. Understanding Young People’s Science Aspirations  is by ASPIRES and ASPIRES 2 Director Professor Louise Archer, and ASPIRES Research Associate (now ASPIRES 2 co-investigator) Dr. Jennifer DeWitt. The book offers new evidence and understanding about how young people develop their aspirations for education, learning and, ultimately, careers in science. Integrating findings from ASPIRES with a wide ranging review of existing international literature, it brings a distinctive sociological analytic lens to the field of science education.

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Book Launch: Science Education, Career Aspirations and Minority Ethnic Students

JasonIlagan26 August 2016

Billy-Wong-Book-300x225

Last month we attended the book launch of our former colleague Dr. Billy Wong, who was a Research Associate on the first phase of our study. Billy now lectures in Education Studies at the University of Roehampton and has published in science education and sociology of education journals.

Billy-Wong-Book2-169x300

His book, Science Education, Career Aspirations and Minority Ethnic Students, builds on his work on both the ASPIRES and Enterprising Science projects at King’s College London by exploring the science career aspirations of minority ethnic students. It investigates the views, experiences and identities of British Black Caribbean, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Indian and Pakistani youths in relation to science.

Order Billy’s book here.

Follow Billy on twitter.

ASPIRES 2 responds to inquiry on science communication

JasonIlagan14 June 2016

— Emily MacLeod

In May, ASPIRES 2 researchers Professor Louise Archer and Dr. Julie Moote submitted evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into science communication. The purpose of the inquiry was to investigate how the Government, scientists, the media and others encourage and facilitate public awareness of, and engagement in, science. Following the submission Professor Louise Archer gave oral evidence to the Committee at the Natural History Museum on 14th June.

The evidence submitted used findings from ASPIRES 2’s national survey of over 13,000 15-16 year olds, and focussed on the science communication strategies being taken to encourage young people to study STEM subjects post-16 and to encourage those young people into STEM careers. We recommended that science communication efforts must work to diversify the image of ‘who does science’, and showcase science qualifications and skills as useful for a wide variety of careers.

Louise-at-sci-comm-inquiry-300x174

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Sixth Form students needed for 30 minute research

JasonIlagan11 May 2016

60% of young people aspire to work in business, but only 15% aspire to be a scientist (ASPIRES).

Not enough young people are choosing to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) after the age of 16. There is also widespread concern that the profile of those who do go on to pursue STEM subjects and careers is too narrow – with women, working-class and some minority ethnic groups remaining under-represented.

ASPIRES 2, based at King’s College London, is the second phase of a ten-year study into the science, STEM and career aspirations of young people aged 10-18. Our longitudinal data, tracking students from primary school to further education, is helping us to understand the changing influences on young people’s science and career aspirations, and has a strong bearing on educational policy and practice – especially concerning the widening STEM skills gap and diversifying the STEM workforce.

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Is GCSE Triple Science making the STEM skills gap wider?

JasonIlagan21 April 2016

— Emily MacLeod

When the 2006 GCSE reforms introduced the entitlement to take Triple Science from 2008, it was hoped that this widely praised three-qualification route would go some way to addressing the country’s STEM skills gap. But following the data collected from our national survey of over 13,000 Year 11 students, in addition to our longitudinal interviews with 70 of these students, researchers at ASPIRES 2 are questioning whether the Triple Science route really is serving society’s STEM needs. Emergent findings suggest:

  1. Socially disadvantaged students are less likely to study Triple Science – In our study, the most socially disadvantaged students were two and a half times less likely to study Triple Science compared to the most advantaged. We also found that students in middle and bottom sets were much less likely to study Triple Science than their peers in top sets.
  2. Students don’t choose their KS4 science options – their schools do – Despite the notion of ‘choice’ surrounding the GCSE selection process, 61% of the students surveyed taking Triple Science had this decided for them. What’s more, many of the remaining students indicated that they had been steered into taking a particular choice by their school.
  3. Students think that Triple Science is only for the ‘clever’ kids – Triple Science was overwhelmingly seen as the route for those who are ‘clever’ and ‘sciency’, both by those taking it and those taking alternative options. Our interviews showed that this left Double Science and Science BTEC students feeling inferior, especially in schools which  threaten to ‘bump down’ Triple Science students to Double Science if they fail to achieve the top grades.

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What makes the girls taking Physics A level so exceptional?

JasonIlagan15 January 2016

— Emily MacLeod

Less than 23% of the students studying Physics at AS level in 2013/14 were female, according to Ofsted. So why are so many girls choosing not to continue with Physics post-16?

ASPIRES 2 is the second phase of a ten-year project aiming to understand the processes through which students develop their science and career aspirations between the ages of 10 and 19 by surveying and interviewing students and parents from around the country. 70 of the students we first interviewed in year 6, now in year 11, have recently been interviewed for the fourth time, this time about their post-16 choices. We found that, overwhelmingly, students see Physics as ‘masculine’ and ‘hard’.

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