Girls into physics goes primary

2 February 2018

Phil Atherton is the Head of Physics and Ogden Teacher Fellow at Kingsbridge Academy, hub school for the South Devon & Torbay Partnership. Established in 2014, each school in the partnership leads an event or initiative each year which pupils from the other schools are invited to attend. Girls into Physics is the flagship partnership event at Kingsbridge Academy, aimed at encouraging girls to study physics to a higher level. Phil has been leading project and tells us more.

I am very proud of the work we have been doing at Kingsbridge Academy and through the South Devon & Torbay Partnership; we have encouraged more girls to consider studying physics at A-Level and beyond. This year, 11 female students started A-level physics, a record for the school.

When I arrived at the school four years ago, we had no girls studying A-Level physics. This was something that clearly needed to change, so we embarked on a Girls into Physics project. I am pleased to say this seems to be working and as of September 2017, we had 14 girls studying A-Level physics and last year we had our first two girls, go on to study physics at university.

Girls in Physics initiative proves successful at Kingsbridge Academy
Girls in Physics initiative proves successful

A-Level student, Elinor Jones explored her relationship with physics in an article she recently wrote (extract below)…

“You have ten seconds to name three famous female physicists. Go.”

Apologetically I held my hands up in shame as if I’d let the entire female population down, encompassed by the embarrassment that I could not recall a single figure from the scientific community besides Marie Curie, whilst my mind hurriedly scanned through the partially memorised physics textbook tucked away in my bag, reeling off a list as long as my arm of her male counterparts: Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo, Kirchhoff, Hooke, the list goes on.

To seek reassurance that fellow women can also be attributed to for world-changing discoveries I turn to the Web, in search for some much needed inspiration. What I find is a website whose fundamental principle is to promote significant breakthroughs in human knowledge featuring only the previously mentioned woman amongst a list 20-strong of physicists with slightly deeper voices and, hopefully, a great deal more facial hair. 

Just to reassure you, these aren’t the sorts of mind-games I test myself with of an evening; this was a challenge, or question that turned out to be a challenge, posed by the Ogden Trust, a nationwide organisation that aims to break down the stereotypes encouraging more of us to study physics, especially women. Despite the doom and gloom frequently reported that there are far too few girls taking physics beyond age 16, that’s not to say the next Sally Ride or Helen Sharman (I’ve since done my research) isn’t out there. Only recently I was sat in a lecture theatre at Exeter University that was bursting with enthusiasm for this science: lecturers, research fellows, PhD students, and over 50 16-17 year-old girls, all of whom have in their own small way defied stereotypes, yet still wear as much pink as they desire.

The day consisted of an array of activities; in the morning an inspirational university-style lecture from research fellow Dr Natalie Garrett in the exciting field of biophotonics, followed by a question-and-answer session with some of the South West’s leading female scientists aimed to motivate us to believe that there are endless possibilities through studying physics, and the afternoon’s lab session and physics ‘busking’ session showed many ways to inspire this type of motivation in younger students too.

Dr Alice Mills, who works for Ogden Trust at the university promoting physics across the South West, believes training girls to inspire the next generation is key: “
It is very important that girls feel no barriers to studying Physics if it is something that they are interested in. Unfortunately, there is still a strong feeling that it is a ‘male subject’.”

And that is exactly the point. Where the problem lies is not with talent (girls outperform boys in science GCSEs) nor is it that women can’t make waves in this field. It is attitudes. Think ‘scientist’ and you’ve probably got a balding, wrinkled Doc Brown figure conjured up in your mind’s eye. Wrong, but it’s true. In fact, in an American and Canadian study over 40 years ago only 1 per cent of children drew a female when asked to put to paper their image of a scientist.

As a woman, however, there will always be part of me that wants to help defy convention - like many of the women we met - in order to go from negative to positive (excuse the physics pun).
Girls in Physics goes primary as students proudly display their camera obscures
Girls in Physics goes primary

Having started to make a difference at secondary level, we have decided to take the Girls into Physics project into the primary schools. Research suggests that even at this age, girls are starting to decide that physics is not for them. Girls from Years 10, 11 and 12 have been trained as ambassadors and are now delivering practical workshops to our feeder primary school students, looking at light and building Camera Obscuras. The idea is to get our ambassadors to act as role models for the younger girls and to try to inspire and motivate them to have a life-long interest in physics. The first sessions have gone really well and both the ambassadors and the primary students have really enjoyed them. 

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