Restore the balance, physics needs a female edge

5th March 2004 at 00:00
All the sciences are suffering a serious decline in the number of pupils studying them. With the range and variety of subjects available in schools now, from computing to psychology and sociology to Urdu, it is not surprising that pupils opt for classes which were almost unheard of 10 years ago.

With the removal of a science subject from the curriculum core in several local authorities, the huge uptake in biology compared with physics and the knowledge that physics is no longer an entry requirement for medical and medical science courses, physics appears to be suffering most. And the biggest decline is in the number of girls opting for physics.

When I studied physics at university in the 1970s I was one of four young women in a class of over 200. Coming from an all girls' school, I had never thought that I would not be good at physics.

Among the many things that my role model, mentor and physics teacher said to me at the age of 13 was: "A real physicist always has a screwdriver in her handbag." So physicists were, obviously, women. What else could I possibly have thought?

Indeed, many of my generation of physicists and physics teachers came from just such a school. Surely all these women would have some influence on the number of girls studying the subject?

At Bearsden Academy, in East Dunbartonshire, that seemed to be the case. In the early 1990s the physics department attracted large numbers of girls.

Although we could never quite achieve equal numbers of boys and girls at Standard grade, for several years as many girls as boys did Higher physics (around 50).

We now have 66 Higher physics pupils but fewer than 10 are girls. How can we remedy this?

Girls no longer see physics as relevant to them and there are few suitable role models. There are very wise, very clever, very committed female physics teachers but few of these are women the average 13-year-old girl sees herself becoming.

The world needs physicists and the world needs a balance. Women in physics are desperate to encourage girls to join us. It is a rewarding field, full of knowledge and understanding, questions and answers, a world full of wonder but also practicalities.

We must start attracting students at an early age. The primary and secondary sectors must both help children to differentiate among the sciences and technologies, to see physics in its place, at the heart of everything, as the base for the technologies. They must be helped to see physics as a science which will provide for our future, especially as it interfaces with biology in the medical sciences, biotechnology and with chemistry to explore new worlds in space, to take a better look at the Moon, Mars and the other planets as they become accessible to us.

We must show that physics is interesting, exciting, relevant and fun. We must use "virtual" packages to help those who are thinkers rather than doers and we must pull out all the stops with investigations and practical applications, especially at primary and early secondary levels, for those who like the hands-on approach.

I appeal to all physics teachers: strive for the balance, make the world of physics relevant to everyone, at whatever level, and do this to ensure there are future physicists of both genders willing and able to take over from us in time.

Encourage girls. Let us have the best engineers, scientists, astronauts, medics, lawyers, plumbers, electricians and problem solvers of the world, be they boys or girls. And let us, too, encourage those who just want to know a little bit more about how the world works.

Ronna Montgomery is principal teacher of physics at Bearsden Academy, East Dunbartonshire

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