Science Education MA 2015-17

Here follows the abstract from my dissertation research for my MA in Science Education:

'Girls in Physics’: How can discussing the under-representation of women in Physics academic research or related careers affect the attitudes of Year 9-11 girls towards studying A-Level Physics?

Women in the U.K. are greatly under-represented in the fields of physics and
engineering. Low numbers of girls choosing to study physics for A-Level is a major
cause of this. Most research into the attitudes of secondary school-age girls relates a
chosen factor, such as having female role models, and the effect that this can have
on attitudes towards science. This dissertation argues that these factors are largely
chosen based on assumptions, however an area which has shown a significant
positive effect on girls’ attitudes is the explicit discussion of under-representation. 
Research interventions to target this that have been shown to be effective are
usually long-term or require a lot of resources. Little work has been conducted to
focus on practical actions that schools and teachers can take to increase
participation of girls in physics beyond GCSE.

Combining these two areas, this study designs a one-off event called ‘Girls in Physics’ 
where the under-representation of women in physics is discussed by two speakers, 
and girls are given time to discuss what they have heard. Year 9-11 girls (14-16 years
old) from across north London were invited to the event and self-selected to attend. 
The effectiveness of the event is evaluated from their attitudes towards studying
physics for A-Level, and then possibly in higher education. By discussing under-
representation, changes to the boundaries of the participants’ figured worlds were hypothesised to take place. 

A questionnaire was given to respondents before and after the event. This showed
that the event was successful in supporting students who already had a high interest in studying physics for A-Level, and a marginal increase was recorded between the
two questionnaires. Three focus groups, each comprised of five students, were held
in three different types of school in order to add more detail to the survey
responses, and to understand more deeply the students’ attitudes and any change in them.

The focus group discussions showed that the discussion of under-representation
seemed either to affirm an existing identity or extend a boundary in a girl’s mind to
view herself as more of a physics person. This indicates that for a group attending
this type of event, an overall increase in those choosing to study A-Level physics would be seen. 

It is therefore recommended that this event could be used as a template for future
intervention, however with an adaptation that focussed on increasing the
confidence of attendees in their physics competence. Involving more discussion of
how mathematics is related to physics content could help with this. The study also
recommends that the speakers at any future events should represent a more diverse range of women.

In the wider field, more research needs to be conducted into how the study of
physics in school can be better linked to physics content in an engaging and non-
traditional way.