`Sticking bananas in liquid nitrogen doesn't work'

2nd January 2015 at 00:00
Diversity advocates dismayed by efforts to get girls into physics

Initiatives to attract more girls to study physics have only succeeded in scaring them off, a leading scientist has claimed.

Schools have been getting it "horribly wrong" for three decades, according to Averil Macdonald, a professor at the University of Southampton who leads on diversity for the South East Physics Network. Teachers needed to do more to dispel stereotypes about scientists and explain to pupils and parents about the different opportunities available, she said.

Campaigns based on inspiring female role models, national competitions and "spectacular" experiments had done more harm than good, the former secondary physics teacher argued.

Although physics was the second most popular A-level among boys last year, it ranked 16th among their female classmates. Just 9 per cent of UK jobs in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) are occupied by women - a smaller proportion than any other country in Europe.

Last month, the government announced a pound;67 million scheme to train 17,500 additional physics and maths teachers, targeting postgraduates, researchers and career-changers. "If children [are going to] compete and get the best jobs, you need mathematicians and scientists - pure and simple," said prime minister David Cameron.

But Professor Macdonald, a board member for the Women into Science and Engineering campaign, warned that a more fundamental issue of gender equality in the classroom needed to be addressed, arguing that work to promote physics among female learners had made "no difference whatsoever".

"Something is going horribly wrong," she said. "We will need 36,000 more engineers than we are currently planning to produce over the next decade just to keep ourselves stable, because an awful lot of engineers are soon to retire.

"We've also got the problem that if we are only recruiting from one half of the population.we are trawling ever deeper depths of mediocrity if we're going to fill the jobs just with the boys. We need the females in there."

Speaking at a conference on education and gender equality organised by the NASUWT union last month, Professor Macdonald argued that outreach efforts had so far been wide of the mark. "We've been sending scientists into schools to blow things up and stick bananas in liquid nitrogen and all these wonderful things. It doesn't work.Similarly, participating in competitions [is] particularly negative for girls [and] will actually, at the end, result in girls being less likely to take an engineering subject.

"Building things and solving problems are supposed to be the ways to get them to do it. Oh no they're not. Similarly, pictures of girls in hard hats. Please don't show me any more pictures of girls in hard hats: we do not aspire to wear hard hats."

Citing examples of successful female scientists could also have negative consequences, Professor Macdonald warned. "Be very careful about daunting high-powered female role models," she said. More important for girls than enjoying the subject was feeling that physics was for "people like me", she added.

Teachers needed to stress that studying physics could also open doors in careers such as marketing, journalism and translation, she said. And the most important influence of all on girls' career choices? Their mums. "Until the mums are comfortable that their daughters will be happy and successful in a Stem career, they will not be supportive and the daughter, at the end of the day, will think again," Professor Macdonald said.

Dr David Cameron, who manages the Institute of Physics' Stimulating Physics Network project, which supports more than 400 schools across the country, said that interventions "on a grand scale" ran the risk of "alienating" the girls they were targeting.

More important, he said, was to improve the standard of teaching in physics classes, especially among those teachers who did not specialise in the subject.

"Students, especially girls, are put off if they are not receiving inspiring teaching on a day-to-day basis," Dr Cameron said. "There are also wider issues about using role models: rather than inviting in a Nasa astronaut who will come in for an hour and never be seen again, it's better to get someone in who is from the local area, from a similar background to the students, who can come back again and again and develop a sustained relationship."

How physics can open doors

Jessica Hamer is a former physics teacher who now works for the Institute of Physics on a pilot project to increase the number of girls studying the subject to A-level. She agrees with many of Professor Macdonald's concerns.

"It's not about one-off events, it's about a commitment to tackling gender inequality in schools," she says. "We need to increase girls' confidence so they are less likely to make stereotyped subject choices. We need to have more interactions with students and parental influencers to tell them about the doors physics can open. Taking physics doesn't mean you have to become a physicist: you could become a meteorologist or go and work in the City.

"Rather than just teaching standalone abstract concepts, we need to tell students what having this knowledge could lead to a job in.

"Role models can be positive, but rather than having a really academic, high-powered scientist, it might be better to have female undergraduates coming in and speaking. They are a little bit older, but not so far removed from where the students are at. Rather than them doing something `unattainable', it's easier for students to see themselves doing that."

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