Earlier this week I met with a group of Physics teachers from a range of schools to discuss how we can encourage more pupils, particularly girls, to study Physics beyond GCSE. It led to the inevitable question of what factors influence subject choice? Is it the accessibility of the subject? Is it the passion of the teacher? Is it the relevance of the subject or the joy of understanding the subject matter?
The discussion was part of a joint initiative with the GSA and Institute of Physics called Physics Partners. Physics Partners is an educational charity that gives free expert hands on support to Physics teachers in the state sector. It was set up in recognition that there is a huge shortage of qualified Physics teachers and as a result Physics teaching is, far too often, left to newly qualified or non-specialist teachers who may not have the in depth knowledge or skills to teach Physics successfully.
The charity deploys expert Physics teachers to go into schools to help train non- specialists to give them the confidence to inspire a demotivated class, regain their interest and provide future physicists who, in turn, will be inspired to return to the classroom. We are proud to be part of this charity and over the next year we will be working collaboratively with other schools supporting non- specialists with their delivery of Physics.
There is no doubt that an inspirational teacher is key and the group of Physics teachers we met had this quality in abundance. Yet they all noted the number of girls studying Physics beyond GCSE was small.
Whilst not wanting to appear smug BGS has a very healthy uptake of girls studying Physics, but what became apparent from our discussion is the unconscious bias that exists in the delivery of Physics. This bias is one of many factors which stops girls studying Physics. The unconscious bias was most noticeable in textbooks where the images used are primarily of men. Men in racing cars, men playing sport, men working machines. The images of women in the text books are largely of women on phones, their long hair affected by static. The application of Physics focused on areas that would traditionally interest boys, the famous physicists all being men.
We all need role models. If we can see these images in text books, we unconsciously feel it is not suitable for us. If a subject is dominated by male images then girls feel excluded, and vice versa. In an all girls’ school we can counter this bias. In lessons, Physics can be applied to areas that interest the range of girls we teach, female focused material can be used, we have female role models, younger girls see older girls studying Physics and our alumnae return to discuss the plethora of interesting careers linked to the study of Physics.
Physics Partners is trying to break down these stereotypes and make Physics more accessible to all. We are excited to be part of this programme, our experiences and materials in the classrooms can be shared and I hope, it inspires a growth in both men and women studying Physics beyond school to be role models future generations of students.