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The Physics Problem

EmilyMacleod21 November 2018

By Dr Julie Moote

ASPIRES 2 Research Associate Dr Julie Moote recently spoke at the first workshop on high energy theory and gender at CERN. Threaded through the theoretical physics presentations by scientists were a series of gender talks by academics working across the field. This blog is a summary of Dr Moote’s presentation of findings from the ASPIRES 2 project; ‘Understanding Young Women’s STEM Aspirations: Exploring aspirations and attitudes between the ages of 10 and 19 in England’.

Background

Participation in post-compulsory physics remains low and unchanged, with the proportion of students studying physics at A level in the UK noticeably lower than those studying other sciences. Not only do a minority of students tend to see physics as ‘for me’, but the field of physics itself also shapes and normalises its elite status.

Beyond issues of the STEM skills gap, physics especially suffers from under-representation of women and minority groups. The Institute of Physics recently found that boys were four times more likely to progress to A-level having done triple science over additional science, a disparity that is reflected to a slightly lesser extent across the STEM disciplines. This imbalance carries through to physics-based employment; for example although the number of women in engineering in the UK is growing, women still only make up 11% of the UK engineering workforce.

Who is studying physics? The ASPIRES 2 Findings

The ASPIRES 2 project found that gender was the biggest difference between students taking physics A Level and those taking other sciences at A level. Physics students were also more likely to have high levels of cultural capital, be in the top set for science, have taken Triple Science and have family members working in science.

Students’ interest, enjoyment and aptitude is not enough to pursue physics post-16

The ‘gender problem’ in physics is a long-standing issue with women remaining under-represented despite decades of interventions. Therefore, physics remains a challenging education and career option for women. In fact, girls’ choices not to pursue post-16 physics are rational and strategic, especially as gender inequality within physics renders their success harder. Physics is highly effective at maintaining its elite status by discouraging ‘non traditional’ students and by ensuring that those students who do gain entry accept the status quo;

  • Firstly, the popular and prevalent, gendered notion of the ‘effortlessly clever physicist’ (e.g. see Carlone’s 2003 study) means that many young women think they are not ‘naturally’ clever enough to study physics further. In turn, this maintains physics’ status as the ‘hardest’ science. The fantasy of the ‘effortlessly clever physicist’ deters even highly able, interested young women from aspiring to post-18 physics education and careers. If the most highly attaining young women don’t see themselves as ‘clever enough’, who is?
  • Gatekeeping practices by schools work to block potential students from studying Physics and leads other students to self-exclude.
  • The separation of ‘real’ and school Physics gives the impression that ‘real’ Physics is only for the privileged few with the endurance to attain it (paper under review).
  • Young women with very high Science Capital are more likely to continue with Physics.

Recommendations

Significant change is needed and will only be achieved by transforming the field of Physics itself, rather than focusing on just changing the students (e.g. changing their aspirations and attitudes).

We strongly encourage those who work within the field of Physics to understand and challenge the existing (often taken-for-granted, everyday) ways that the subject reproduces inequality in participation. We see a real value in opening up the current excessively tight gatekeeping practices around entry to Physics A level. In particular, there is a need to disband notions of the ‘effortlessly clever’ physicist, and the notion that physics is ‘harder’ than other subjects – otherwise it will remain the preserve of just a small number of ‘exceptional’ students.

We propose changes to the way school science – and Physics in particular – is taught and experienced:

  • Differences in marking and grade severity across and between subjects should be eliminated.
  • Science and particularly physics should be taught in ways which better link to diverse students’ interests and lives. The Science Capital Teaching Approach has been shown to be helpful in this respect for increasing student engagement and participation in school science.
  • Physics (and indeed all) teachers should be better supported to understand the complex and sometimes hidden ways in which gendered, classed and racialized inequalities are reproduced through teaching.

For more information about the conference please visit CERN’s website. Following the event, CERN published a statement; CERN stands for diversity (which can be found here). For Dr Moote’s response to events at the conference please see here.

Further reading

We also recommend the following reading from the ASPIRES 2 project on the topic of physics and gender:

Additional papers under review. Sign up to receive project updates and publication news here.

Photo by Ramón Salinero on Unsplash.

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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Who says you need a ‘boy brain’ to do Physics?

JasonIlagan6 September 2016

— Emily MacLeod

Despite many attempts to raise awareness of, and widen participation in, STEM subjects the lack of diversity in the field of Physics is a continuing concern for science educators and policy makers. Research shows that this may be due to multiple factors including the influence of teachers[i] and the prevailing view that Physics is seen by many as ‘for boys’[ii].

From our recent survey of 13,421 Year 11 students it is clear that female exclusion from Physics is a real trend; only 35% of the students interviewed intending to take Physics A level were female (in our relatively ‘science-focussed’ sample). Nationally, this percentage drops by over ten per cent.

In addition to surveying students, for our 10-year study into the science and career aspirations of young people we have conducted four rounds of interviews with a smaller cohort of students. In 2015 we conducted interviews with 70 of the students, now in Year 11 (age 15/16), and 62 of their parents, in which we asked about the under-representation of women in Physics in order to analyse whether, and why, people think that ‘Physics is for boys’.

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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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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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