An awful lot of chat about women in physics.

There’s been too many school trips to document, too many great photos, too many conversations, too much learning. My endless enthusiasm for the promotion of women in physics has led me to being the co-lead of the International Conference of Women in Physics, which will be held in Birmingham next year, so part of my week was spent in Birmingham making plans for something in 2017. I zoomed back to the Royal Society of Chemistry, not to do any chemistry, but to hear from them about their Tim Peake inspired space-related outreach, which is awesome and you’ll hear about soon. Then I went to sleep and woke up to speak to 70 year 8 students and their teachers, which I hadn’t known I was doing when I left the house but was come 10:45.

I am having great fun going over AQA physics at Wimbledon GDST, not because of my hard-core love of the A2 curriculum but because the girls are so bright and they don’t realise it. It’s like academic modesty or being scientifically ‘humble’. I’ve noticed an interesting thing about A-level students: there’s a total mismatch between what they understand and how they use the dreaded formula sheet. The most sensational students don’t need any formula sheets and don’t use them and the students that struggle the most use them almost exclusively, whereas for those somewhere in the middle they are either a blessing or a curse. When I eventually stop living life at 3 million miles a minute I am going to compare the data sheets of different exam boards- I think the way the formulae are arranged really impacts the way students interact with the content, so, watch this space.

Wednesday was the best day. I started “with my GDST hat on”, where I got to speak to the GDST’s shiny new STEM coordinator about projects we could plan for the superstar women scientists of the future. The STEM coordinator (an Imperial alum no less) is located at South Hampstead High School, which is my old school, which has just had a massive all-American refurb. There’s a lot going on at South Hampstead on the day I visit, there’s a whole year group building geo-domes from newspaper in the sport’s hall, there’s a HoDs Design Technology meeting, they’ve just come back from a physics teacher networking event. South Hampstead have some pretty innovative ideas in physics education. For year 12s returning after AS-levels, they run a teaching project where the girls create classroom content for years 9 and 10, they have ‘back-to-school’ sessions during parent’s evening where students teach their parents, they do particle physics lectures before their obligatory CERN field trip. We had an awesome chat about what universities could do for schools, from skyping in to experiments and lectures to acting as educational consultants on national STEM challenges. Whilst it’s great that all learned societies and corporations have big-ticket competitions, schools are put-off due to their chock-a-block timetables and lack of specific expertise. Could universities and outreach organisations offer a toolkit for sixth form science clubs? Can we link GDST alum who work in science? I could write at length about how excited I was to talk to Sam, but part of me just wants to say WATCH THIS SPACE! BRILLIANT THINGS WILL HAPPEN! After talking to 12 HoDs from across the GDST about Design and Technology in schools (with shrinking budgets), I skip across to the Open University’s Camden Office’s to talk about the performance of different demographics in undergraduate physics.

Exploring Demographic Differences in Performance in Undergraduate Physics was just about the most fascinating lunchtime meeting I’ve had for weeks and weeks. I arrived just in time to catch the updates from a few of the researchers across UK universities who are doing super exciting stuff, from qualitative observations of confidence to statistically analysing girls’ performance across different assessments (tutorials, exams, labs, class work).

Lisa Jardine-Wright, one of the masterminds behind the Isaac Physics resources, talks us through their plans to assess girls’ progression through the material. I have noticed that girls respond really well to the online questions, but my GDST mate told me they get really put off by slips with significant figures triggering error messages on-screen. Without the human interaction of a teacher, girls turn off, log out and shut-down. Isaac is a multi-media resource, asking students multiple choice questions online that require pencil and paper working out. Lisa J-W and her gang of Cambridge brain boxes are going to run a few workshops online and offline to see who engages with what.

Next Minni Mao from the University of Manchester talks through their studies of how the gender of lecturers effect the student evaluation of teaching. Apparently even perceived gender of the lecturer can impact the evaluation. Ben Schmidt has an equally hilarious and terrifying website which tracks the use of words through the reviews left on and tracks the use of keywords. There’s significant differences in how professors of different genders are perceived, with words like ‘confidence’ and ‘funny’ being much more prevalent for male science professors than women. The University of Manchester wanted to see if they could do it at a local scale, and have found that the reviews of male professors score highly in sentimental analysis. When the quality of the teaching is discussed, it’s more likely to be by a girl student- it’s much more important to women that the teacher is good than it is to boys. They’ve also pulled out a cracking gender decoder for job adverts, which is a funny tool to check how hard university and industry and trying with their recruitment.

The University of Edinburgh have been analysing the performance of students in group tutorials, where they’ve split the students into all boy, all girl and mixed boy: girl groups. What surprises me is that they’ve gotten away without the students noticing. Before any intervention, they found the girls from mixed groups performed better in final exams than the girls from all-girl groups. The boys’ marks were unaffected. For the next academic year they re-evaluated their approach, changing three hour workshops to two + one (where the one is optional and badly attended), changing the timetable of their hand ins to reduce a heavy workload.

Demographic means more than just girls in science, and I was particularly excited  to hear that social scientist Sinead D’Silva from Leeds university has just started studying the impact of ethnicity on undergraduate physics experience. As for socio-economic class, there’s a difference there too. Whilst upper class people are more likely to study pure subjects like maths and chemistry (fascination), lower classes choose accounting and pharmacy (vocation).

There’s some work looking at the perception of physics to women on a European scale- in places like Serbia, Greece and Finland numbers are better than we are in the UK. Averil MacDonald from Reading and the WISE campaign has extensive insight into the perception of science careers to different audiences. She’s also got friends in high places (all across Europe) who offer insight into the European bias- “physicists are paid so badly in Serbia; no self-respecting man would become a physicist”. Like me, she’s an IOP IGB believer, and thinks we’ve got the Rolls Royce model of physics in the UK- young people thing science and physics is a wonderful thing, but just not for them.

The Open University discussed their ‘Physical World’ course, a level 2 module which is the first opportunity at the OU for students to study physics. Unlike conventional universities where applications are made via UCAS, to study at the OU you just have to have 2 A-Levels, no one asks what they’re in. In their level 2 module women do particularly badly, often struggling to make grades or even complete the course. When they looked at all the data for their students across all the different exam ‘platforms’ (labs, exams, tutorials), they realised “the only thing girls do better is fail”. It’s particularly interesting because they do much better in level 3. So what’s gone wrong? The OU have looked at progression through the year and seen that women are particularly struggling when they’re studying Newtonian Mechanics. They’re particularly sensitive to the type of question being asked and struggle with making assumptions or generalisation. The students coming to the OU aren’t familiar with constructing physical models (saying we can think of a cow as a point mass) and get particularly caught out on the content of the question. It could be a language barrier (lots of students are from overseas), it could be the lack of physics or maths A-level (you’re more likely to go to a conventional university if you’ve got these) or it could be other things that are going on in women’s lives. Do women own up to what they don’t understand or do they just try and avoid it?

Paul Hewson, part of the Higher Education Authority and the National Student Survey has done a super interesting study on demographic participation in the NSS. He’s found that the responses are strongly influenced by A-Level tariff and that women only more likely to respond than men but they’re more likely to be satisfied with the quality of their course. They’re also overwhelmingly more positive. He’s found that the conditions students take the NSS and their academic/ living arrangements have a big influence on how they move through the survey.

There’s a general consensus that this enlightened group of academics and researchers should be working together. For the gender balance, the women who choose to do physics do equally as well and often outperform their male counterparts, and university departments need to work out how to best support the girls they’ve got. For the other demographics (equally as important an often overlooked), we need to up our game.


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