Taking the pee out of physics: how boys are getting a leg-up

Physics is heavily skewed towards boys because they have a unique advantage when it comes to understanding projectile motion – and, argue Anna Wilson, Kate Wilson and David Low, it’s an area too heavily relied on in many curricula

Anna Wilson, Kate Wilson & David Low

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Some of you will think we’re daft. Some will wonder what kind of jobs we have if we have enough time on our hands to dream this kind of thing up. Some of you may even think we’re having you on. Our intentions, however, are honourable.

Playful urination practices – from seeing how high you can pee to games such as Peeball (where men compete using their urine to destroy a ball placed in a urinal) – may give boys an advantage over girls when it comes to physics. And we believe there’s something we can do about it.

No doubt you have some questions, the first is probably: what could possibly lead us to believe this?

Well, for starters, our recent analysis of the kinds of physics questions females generally do worse at than males. Add to that strong evidence for the widespread nature of certain kinds of pee-based game-playing among young (and not-so-young) boys. Finally, throw in our observations on curriculum sequencing and the ways in which formal, mathematically codified physics is often introduced to children and young people.

Let us explain in more detail. The gender gap in physics, and other related subjects including engineering, has long been a cause for concern. This has led to both educational innovations as well as policy interventions such as Change The Equation, Sage and Wise. However, there is little evidence that such campaigns have much effect. For example, Wise was set up in the UK in 1984. In that time, the fraction of female students studying physics in the final two years of school has hovered around 20 per cent.

Therefore we have to ask: why don’t young women perform as well in physics?

Role models and external pressure

Of course, there are likely to be a number of complex, interacting reasons, some of which can be changed more easily than others. The majority of physicists are male, and this reinforces a masculine culture. Historically, logical and mathematical ways of thinking have long been associated with masculinity (although all three of us would argue that such modes of thinking are not particularly masculine or feminine). Most physics teachers are male, so there aren’t many female role models for physics students.

There may also be cultural effects outside the discipline – parents may offer boys more encouragement to study physics as it leads to later study of, for example, engineering (another field that struggles to recruit and retain women).

To some extent, we may be trapped in something of a vicious circle: the apparent male domination/masculinity of physics may repel females who might otherwise be interested in the conceptual structure and scientific approach. After all, women aren’t put off by the “science-ness” of biology, or, increasingly, chemistry.

The finger of blame has also been pointed at poor (or at least gender-biased) pedagogy, with curricula and textbooks filled with images of male scientists and male-oriented examples and contexts such as football, rockets and cannons.

But there may be another reason, too.

We’ve been examining gender differences in achievement on both standard diagnostic and competitive physics tests. We’ve found that not only do girls underperform on these tests, but that the difference in performance arises primarily from specific question types. In particular, the largest gaps in performance between girls and boys arise in questions that involve projectile motion – things that have been thrown, kicked, fired, etc. On some projectile questions, we’ve seen only around one-third of girls answer correctly, compared to two-thirds of boys. This isn’t a trivial gap in performance, particularly when a diagnostic test may contain several questions on projectiles.

It’s often suggested that the differences between boys’ and girls’ participation in active, physical sports, particularly ball sports, may be an important factor in this performance gap and in differences overall.

This theory implicitly acknowledges the primacy of Newtonian mechanics, and particularly projectile motion, in introductory physics. It also acknowledges just how important physically acquired and embodied knowledge is. When one learns about projectile motion through ball sports, one does so by trial and error, by learning how to adjust aim and impulse to produce a desired trajectory, and by engaging in an activity that is fun and generates its own (bodily and emotional) rewards.

The theory that participation in ball sports impacts on physics achievement also suggests that the gap might be reduced by engaging young girls in sports such as football.

In addition, we might expect the gap in achievement to already be less among girls and young women who embrace or wish to challenge the conventional masculinity of this discipline. However, we don’t see a reduced gap among students enrolled at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA). The young women at ADFA have already chosen to pursue life in what might be seen as a hyper-masculine environment; and, by virtue of ADFA’s physical strength and fitness entrance requirements, together with the Academy’s compulsory sports program, are likely to have a lot of experience of ball sports.

Challenging the gender gap

This suggests that there is another reason for young women and girls’ relative under-performance – and it must be one that specifically results in lower facility with projectile motion. The same sensitivity to environmental, socio-cultural factors and embodied learning that points to ball sports as a contributing factor leads us to look for other aspects of common lived experience that might lead male students to have a better understanding and increased mastery of projectile motion compared to females.

Like many parents of small (and not-so-small) boys, two of us (KW and DL) have observed the great delight young males take in urination, a process by which they produce and direct a visible projectile arc.

The fact that boys (and men) play with their ability to projectile pee is hardly contentious. Boys are trained to pee into toilet bowls with floating targets, a huge variety of which can be bought on Amazon; Amsterdam Airport Schiphol famously cleaned up its urinals by encouraging men to hit flies etched next to the drain; and Peeball is now a worldwide phenomenon.

Meanwhile, YouTube videos explain how to write your name in the snow with your pee; and the post-match celebration peeing antics of sportsmen are widely reported in the media. Indeed, the very notion of a pissing contest – furthest, highest, most precisely aimed – is a deeply embedded part of some cultures. Alexander Pope includes a pissing contest in his narrative poem, the Dunciad. Our own children describe a stepped wall behind their primary school that’s used by male pupils for competitive target practice. And a colleague who grew up in the Canadian arctic describes boys competing to see who could perfect the trajectory so that what ascended as liquid fell as ice crystals.

All this is experienced up to five times a day, so by 14, boys have had the opportunity to play with projectile motion around 10,000 times. And 14 is when many children meet formalised physics in the form of projectile motion and Newton’s equations of motion for the first time.

This self-directed, hands-on, intrinsically (and sometimes extrinsically, and socially) rewarding activity must have a huge potential contribution to learning, resulting in a deep, embodied, material knowledge of projectile motion that’s simply not accessible to girls.

Transfer of this understanding to typical contextualised questions in mechanics curricula is not likely to be difficult, either: as mentioned above, the favourite scenarios for projectile motion exercises are often aiming a ball or a cannon, and involve drawing a trajectory line that must recall those sparkling arcs of urine.

Why worry so much about girls’ ability to do as well as boys on projectile motion questions? Conventional physics curricula often use projectile motion as the entry point to more sophisticated mechanics concepts such as force, energy and momentum. This is even done because it is assumed to be more familiar, and hence easier to relate to.

If girls’ experiences of formal, mathematically codified physics start with a topic that males have already experienced more learning in relation to, it is perhaps unsurprising that both students and teachers construct conceptions of boys as having deeper understanding and being more naturally suited to physics.

Of course, there is no simple way to provide girls with the same opportunities for exploring projectile motion that boys have in playing with pee. Nor do we suggest that projectile motion not be taught or assessed.

Changing the flow

However, we can make a change: it’s not necessary for physics curricula to begin with projectile motion. Other topics, such as energy conservation, which is more central to physics, could be taught first instead.

It’s with some trepidation that we commit this to print. We know that some people won’t take us seriously; indeed, we might even be accused of taking the piss.

But despite the surface layer of toilet humour, and the implication that physics may be little more than a pissing contest, we’re making a serious point. As the proportion of jobs in the science and technology sector rises, and many of the complex problems the world faces require high levels of scientific and technological literacy to be understood and resolved, lower achievement and participation rates for young women in physics are set to become even more significant problems.

Girls are already at a cultural disadvantage in a traditionally male-dominated subject: let’s not add an embodied disadvantage by unthinkingly sticking with traditional curriculum sequencing.

Anna Wilson is a researcher at Abertay University and an adjunct associate professor at the Australian National University. Kate Wilson is a senior lecturer in the School of Engineering and Information Technology and the Learning and Teaching Group at University of New South Wales Canberra. David Low is an honorary lecturer in the School of Physical, Environmental and Mathematical Sciences at University of New South Wales Canberra


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