Physics Education: It’s Different for Girls?

Back in the late eighties I was one of two girls out of thirty pupils in my 5th form Physics class. While girls were happy to take up the Biology and Modern Language options, in my Physics class I languished- ignored by the boys that did not care to pair up for experiments with lens and pendulums with these odd girls that had bizarrely chosen this apparently most ‘male’ of subjects. Sadly, my experience in the Physics lab mirrored that of the sports playing field. Last to be picked, my teenage love of hockey and Physics soon waned.  It seems little has unfortunately changed in the intervening decades.

In October 2012, the UK-based Institute of Physics (in ‘It’s Different for Girls’) reported that girls’ participation in Physics post-16 was at an alarmingly low level despite the popularity and employability of Physics graduates in the wider workforce.  As Professor Peter Knights states in the foreword of the report:

“In 2011, physics was the fourth most popular subject for A-level among boys in English schools but for girls the subject languished in 19th place.”

At first glance this is especially puzzling as both male and female pupils do comparably well at Physics/ Science at GCSE level. The study explores the discrepancy in the uptake of Physics at A Level and finds that:

–          49% of maintained co-ed schools sent no girls on to take A-level physics in 2011. The figure for all secondary schools is 46%

–          Girls were almost two and a half times more likely to go on to do A-level physics if they came from a girls’ school rather than a co-ed school (for all types of maintained schools in England)

–          Twice the percentage of girls who went on to do A-level physics came from a school with a sixth form, compared to schools that only teach up to age 16 (for co-ed maintained schools in England)

–          For maintained schools in England, the positive effect of single-sex education on girls’ choice of physics post-16 is not replicated in the other sciences.

This recent report also echoes the findings of prior studies. Warrington and Younger (2000) for example surveyed students in Year 11 (aged 15–16) in 15 English secondary schools regarding their subject preferences and discovered that:

–          63% of girls said they liked biology, and this fell to 37% (for chemistry and 22% for physics

–          42% of girls enjoyed science compared with 63% of boys;

–          16% of girls reported that science was their favourite subject compared with 37% of boys.

The Institute of Physics have, in response to these findings, produced resources for parents and teachers to encourage girls to take up and maintain their interest in Physics.

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