It’s Different for Girls
How can parents support the take-up of A-level physics by girls?
A briefing sheet
Research published by the Institute of Physics shows that a shocking 46% of schools in England sent no girls on to study A-level physics in 2011.
Physics graduates earn salaries well above the average and the subject is useful in a wide range of careers, as well as developing analytical skills and allowing people to understand more of the world around them. As such, the Institute of Physics believes that it is the cultural entitlement of all students to learn physics, taught by an accomplished teacher with expertise in the subject, until they can make an informed decision about whether to take it further. At the moment, too many girls are being denied this entitlement. At Rooks Heath we are doing all we can make physics a desirable choice by our female students.
For both boys and girls, the biggest single external influence on their understanding and enjoyment of any subject is their teacher. So the Institute supports teachers of physics throughout their careers to ensure schools have a thriving culture of physics. Mrs Hare, A level physics teacher at Rooks Heath, is a member of the institute of physics and makes full use of the CPD provided by the institute.
However, parental attitudes to science and their knowledge of its associated benefits also contribute to students deciding whether to continue with physics after the age of 16. This leaflet explores some of the ways that you can contribute to creating an environment in which girls and young women see doing physics as the norm rather than the exception.
Investigating waves with Jelly Babies
Why does this matter?
20% of physics A-level students are girls – this hasn’t changed for 20 years.
The government is placing an ever stronger emphasis on the role of science and technology in the UK economy. Industry has responded by creating an increasing number of science-related jobs at all levels but many companies report that they’re unable to fill vacancies due to skills shortages. The nation needs more young people to take A-level physics.
Alongside this, university education is getting more expensive and university entrance is getting more competitive so subject choice at A-level is even more important than in the past. A recent report by the Russell Group of leading UK universities identified physics as one of the subjects that it recommends students take at A-level.
Medicine is a particular career choice for girls but in 2013/2014 there were eleven applicants for every place at medical school. Physics is not a requirement for medical school but as medicine becomes ever more technical physics will become more and more useful. There are also many other careers associated with medicine (medical physics and radiography to name but two) where physics A level will be a requirement. You may be interested to know that some of the most recent treatments for cancer such as proton therapy were developed by physicists.
Catching up with the latest physics news in Physics World
Physics was the 19th most popular A-level subject for girls in 2011 compared to 4th for boys.
There is no academic reason why so few girls go on to take A-level physics – girls and boys do equally well at GCSE-level physics and science/additional science (previously called double-award science) – so by choosing not to do physics beyond age 16, girls are not only missing out on the opportunities and career benefits that physics offers, but the nation is missing out on the talents of young women.
Using a model to demonstrate particle theory and how temperature affects the states of matter.
What can you do as a parent?
1. Challenge stereotypes
As a society we deal in the cultural shorthand of stereotypes, often accepting and perpetuating them without thinking. We see them clearly in many media representations of scientists as male, mad professors with brains the size of planets but no social skills.
• Help your daughter or son to understand gender stereotypes and how they are perpetuated and used in the media, so that they can explicitly challenge them.
• Try not to use stereotypes yourself and challenge those that you come across.
2. Create a positive physics environment
A key influence on girls’ attitudes to physics is self-concept – their sense of themselves in relation to the subject. By encouraging a positive physics environment at home, your daughter will be able to see herself doing, and enjoying, physics more easily.
• Avoid comments like “I was terrible at physics at school”, “you have to be really clever to do physics” or “I can’t understand physics”.
• Watch science programmes, such as the BBC’s Bang Goes the Theory, with your daughter and make positive comments about what you’re seeing, encourage her to talk about science with you.
• Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know or understand something – suggest ways of finding out together.
3. Enjoy science with your daughter.
4. Add some physics to your family days out
You may associate physics with school, but there are plenty of leisure activities that take the subject out of an academic setting and allow you to experience physics in different ways.
• See what your local science and discovery centre has to offer www.sciencecentres.org.uk/centres
• Many towns have science festivals offering events not just for children and families, but adults as well www.sciencecentres.org.uk/events/science_festivals.html
• Volunteers from the Institute of Physics take physics busking to events every summer. For this year’s schedule see www.physics.org/article-activity.asp?id=61
5. Don’t hesitate to contact your daughter’s science/physics teacher or myself if you have any concerns or questions. At Rooks Heath we take gender equity and access to all subjects very seriously which is why we are doing all we can to show girls that physics is a desirable qualification.
6. Encourage physics-based career aspirations
Parents can be very influential when it comes to career aspirations, but girls in particular tend to have limited knowledge and understanding of how their choices influence pay and progression routes.
• Ask your daughter’s school (if she isn’t already at Rooks Heath) for careers information and work experience that challenge gender stereotypes and provide insight into all the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) career pathways.
• Don’t shy away from discussions with your daughter about the role that she may wish to play in the future as a parent – and how she might deal with a career break.
7. Explore physics online
The World Wide Web was invented by a physicist, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and it’s now home to a wealth of information about physics. Some of the best physics sites include:
• www.physics.org – This is a curated guide to physics on the web that highlights the best online physics content for you. Follow them on Twitter @dotrythisathome.
Year 12 students finding the mass of a retort stand in a rather unusual way
• http://www.zooniverse.org – You can take part in some real science and make a difference with one of the online projects hosted by the Zooniverse.
• http://www.sixtysymbols.com – Is a series of quirky short films that seek to explain the abundance of squiggles and letters used by physicists.
• http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/dotphysics – a blog that applies physics to solving everyday conundrums such as what’s the best way to mow a lawn? How should you compare the performance of athletes competing in the decathlon? And is it possible to run up a wall?
• www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00lwxj1 – watch clips from the BBC TV show Bang Goes the Theory, find out more about the presenters or try some hands-on science.
Studying physics not only provides a broad training in skills that are highly valued and well rewarded by employers; it also keeps your options open.
The salaries of physics graduates are well above the national average. Over a working lifetime, the average physics graduate earns around £100,000 more than graduates of non-science subjects – recognition of a physicist’s problem-solving, analytical, mathematical and IT skills as well as their ability to grasp concepts quickly.
Physicists play a vital role in many technology-based industries such as optoelectronics, nanotechnology, computing and renewable energy. Others work on investigating the universe; searching for extra-solar planets or looking for the remnants of the big bang. Others still go on to apply their knowledge in healthcare (medical physics), studying the processes of the Earth (geophysics) or the climate (meteorology).
Some of Mrs Hare’s ex-students and why they picked A-level physics
Dr Suzannah Przeslak
I chose Physics at A-Level simply because I enjoyed it. I found it intuitive, and fascinating to discover the foundations of how everything works. I especially enjoyed the experimental aspect of creating something, to work on its progression and how rewarding it is to eventually develop a working article.
I didn’t think twice about pursuing a subject that I enjoy. I studied Physics at Cardiff University and spent my summers on work placements at EADS Astrium. With some hard work and determination I achieved a Master’s Degree with First Class Honours and followed this by successfully completing a Ph.D. developing novel mid-infrared semiconductor lasers at QinetiQ in association with the University of Bristol. I currently work as a failure analysis engineer, and manage the failure analysis team for one site of a global power semiconductor company.
I am fortunate to be able to pursue a career related to my studies. Furthermore, physics qualifications are a great investment because of the transferrable skills learnt – primarily problem solving, in addition to the written projects and presentations at degree and Ph.D. level which are looked upon very highly by employers. In my opinion, physics qualifications enable you to have the confidence and versatility to really stand out from the crowd.
Dr Rachel Walsh
I studied medicine at university and am now specialising in paediatrics. I studied Biology, Chemistry and Physics at A-Level. Although most universities only ask for Chemistry and Biology, I really do think that all three were equally useful in terms of baseline knowledge during my medical degree and in daily clinical practice. Where biology holds a lot of facts, chemistry and physics both afford the theory and fundamental principles to underpin this. During my undergraduate degree, a basic understanding of principles such as Starling’s law, flow rates and even the application of logarithmic scales was immensely helpful in quickly grasping new concepts. This is more important than you might think when the sudden unguided learning and revising for exams hits you without warning. Before applying knowledge to patients and clinical medicine, almost all areas have a mathematical or theoretical aspect get to grips with. In particular, cardiac output, respiratory function and vascular medicine can all be broken down into basic forces, flow dynamics and resistance. As medicine is such an enormous field with an infinite amount of knowledge to acquire, anything that can help you decipher mechanisms and underlying pathology is worth investing in.
I remember the first time I really decided I wanted to do physics, I was sat in a science lab in year nine daydreaming and looking at the pictures in the text book. I saw a picture of an astronaut and the view out of the small porthole showing the whole Earth. I remember thinking to myself, “I want to see that one day. I should probably start paying more attention…” From then on it became my goal to pursue a career in the space industry and my dream is to become an astronaut. For this reason I took maths, physics, chemistry, and biology at A-level and managed to get into the University of Leicester.
It was quite a shock coming to university from school, the work was hard and there was lots of it, but this made me form strong friendships with my fellow physicists. In my second year I swapped from the BSc onto the MPhys course because, although the work was challenging, it is also very rewarding. When it comes to subjects such as physics there are always unanswered questions, there is always so much to be done; so much yet to be discovered. This is why I love it.
I worked harder than I ever have before leading up to my final exams and I got a First Class Honours Degree. This means that I am able to continue my studies onto PhD level where I will be looking at planets around other stars (exoplanets) in particular brown dwarfs to see how their atmospheres interact with their parent star. This is a small example of the vast amount of things that are yet to be discovered and understood. New discoveries are being made every day often leading to more questions than answers. If you want more examples just google: Dark matter, X-ray galaxies, exoplanets, astrobiology. You may have noticed that I am slightly biased toward astrophysics, however there are many other specialisms that a physics student can go into; nanophysics, atomic physics and space science are just a few examples.
When you do a physics degree you learn a vast amount of other skills including analysis, communication, investigation, and problem solving. One of the most important abilities you will acquire is to write computer code. Being able to do this will allow any graduate to get a job in the financial sector or in companies such as BAE systems, Astrium, Ministry of Defence, Sky etc. There are also a huge number of overseas opportunities as obtaining a university degree in a British institution makes all our graduates very desirable.
Like any scientist you will want proof, I would urge you to go online to graduate job sites such as milkround.com or gradcraker.com and see for yourself the types of opportunities available to physics/science graduates. From my personal experience everyone I know has had job offers/interviews soon after graduation. I have been headhunted despite already having opted to take on a PhD. Two of my friends spent all of last summer working for a computing company in Hong Kong and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
I have always been intrigued by how all the things around me were made, how they were assembled and how they work. My physics choice at A level allowed me to gain a better understanding of why objects behave the way they do through both theory and experimentation. This was an excellent way, combined with Maths, to get into Engineering at university. I studied Mechanical Engineering BEng at the University of Hertfordshire. I graduated with a First Class Honours degree in including a sandwich year in industry. During my placement year, I worked in Product Development at Xerox. I worked with a wide variety of people including scientists, engineers, technicians, buyers, etc. I now work for the engineering consultancy HCL working in product development of Xerox products. I work closely with a large international team (countries include USA, Malaysia, and the Netherlands) and have the opportunity to travel frequently.
There are many skills I have been able to develop throughout my school life which have greatly helped me in my career including teamwork, hands on problem solving, and presentation skills. When I am asked about my education and career, I am always met with awe for having such an interesting job. As it has given me a multitude of differing and transferable skills, I feel I can turn my hand to almost anything. I thoroughly enjoyed Physics A Level and am glad it has been valuable for me in pursuing my career in Engineering.
Structural Engineer at AECOM
What is Civil engineering? It is the design and construction of roads, bridges and buildings.
What is Structural Engineering? It is a subset of Civil Engineering and involves the design and construction of buildings.
Throughout school I had always had an interest and aptitude for maths and science. At primary school I enjoyed practical problem solving, number and logic puzzles. I not only enjoy the theory behind mathematical puzzles but also solving practical problems, which translated into an interest in Physics when I started secondary. I particularly enjoyed the mechanics modules within Physics, understanding the interaction of forces on objects, what makes them stand up/move/fall. So how did I decide on engineering?
• In year 10, a Structural Engineer from AECOM gave us a careers talk which sparked my interest in engineering.
• Year 10 work experience week at a van mechanics in St Albans – this made me realise that I wanted to do something with a practical outcome.
• Work experience week in year 11 at a Civil Engineering firm in Ireland. I got to accompany engineers to construction sites, take measurements and use a theodolite to survey the area.
After this I was set on Civil Engineering as a degree and career. I now design the columns/beams/walls that make buildings stand up! I have worked on schools, huge data centres and apartments. At the moment I am working on a large sports centre in NW London. The best thing about my job is seeing the buildings get built on site after all the design work that has gone into them.
To study engineering at university, Maths and Physics are required at A level. I also took Chemistry and German and went on to study my third year in Austria (engineering in German!). The mechanics modules in Physics are the foundations of structural engineering and many of the other engineering disciplines (aeronautical, mechanical, electrical and even chemical). If you are interested in maths, the sciences and enjoy solving practical problems, you may be an engineer in the making! Get some work experience, take Maths and Physics for A level and see where that takes you…
Currently, I am a 3rd year medical student and prior to this course, I completed a BSc (Hons) in Biomedical Science. Throughout this learning process I have discovered that physics frequently plays a key role in the medical advancements and that physics has a fundamental application in medical diagnosis, imaging, and therapeutics.
Whilst an in depth knowledge of physics is not essential to practice as a clinician, the theory obtained from studying A-level physics has given me a sound comprehension into the everyday clinical apparatus that is operated in the medical sphere.
For example, wave theory has helped me appreciate the workings of the stethoscope, ultrasound imaging, and optical imaging in key hole surgery. Learning about electrical potentials provided an insight into the indispensable ECG, a device that reveals the condition of the heart. Understanding resonance and electromagnetic radiation explains the mechanism of diagnostic imaging (MRI, mammography, X-ray and CT scans) – it’s remarkable how accurately these machines can identify a pathology, assisting surgeons and medics in sometimes life-threatening conditions! Through physics; conditions such as cancer, eczema and psoriasis, thyrotoxicosis can be treated with radiotherapy, UV light phototherapy and nuclear medicine, respectively.
Overall, I would encourage studying physics at a higher level. Physics complements and completes the chemistry and biology that is central in grasping the physiology and pathophysiology of the medical curriculum. Practically, learning physics has enlightened me with the value of the medical devices that are essential in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases.
A Level physics gave me a strong scientific background which was very useful for the research element of my psychology degree. I’m sure it would be useful in this way for any degrees which involve research projects. When choosing my A2 levels, I phoned my top choice universities to get some guidance on which AS levels to follow through to A2. They recommended that keeping physics would be good for my university applications. I had lots of questions about how the world works, and physics helped me understand lots of them. It is still relevant to my life even though I finished studying it over 10 years ago.”
One of Rook Heath’s own – Zanita Reubens
I decided to take physics for A level because I found it interesting at GCSE. At the time I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do as a degree, so I wanted to try and keep my options open. I am currently taking a Forensic Science degree and my physics A level has given me an advantage in some of the areas of study. In particular it has been useful when studying ballistics, blood spatter patterns and vehicle collisions as I had already covered these areas in the mechanics sections of the A level. It has also given me a greater understanding of how spectroscopy can be used to identify different compounds in the laboratory using different wavelengths of light.
I am very grateful to some of my ex-students for contributing to this pamphlet but a lot of my ex-students did A level physics for no other reason than they enjoyed it and went onto pursue many varied careers in areas such as law, geography and even English.
If you would like to know more, please contact
Helen Hare at firstname.lastname@example.org
Institute of Physics
76 Portland Place,
London W1B 1NT, UK
Tel +44 (0)20 7470 4800
Fax +44 (0)20 7470 4848
With thanks to the IOP who published the original document that I have used to produce this document.
Why we did A-level physics
Mrs Hare MinstP Cphys
I didn’t set out to do a physics degree. My original career choice was medicine but one of my chosen A levels was physics and I fell in love with the subject. I won’t say that I found it easy and doing a degree without A level maths (you could find colleges that allowed you to do this in my day) was not a laughing matter but I don’t regret a thing. After gaining an upper second class honours degree I spent three years in research but I knew I wanted to be a teacher. One of my goals is to see all A level physics classes made up of 50% girls. Ironically I have probably done more for ill people by becoming a physics teacher than becoming a doctor, because quite a few of my ex-students have gone on to become medical doctors or taken up medical related careers.
Apparently I wanted to be an Engineer from the age of about 7 but the reality is that I don’t think I knew the diverse range of roles an engineer might do until my third year at university. I was however very interested in how things worked and in particular aeroplanes and that guided my choices. I chose A level Physics as one of my A levels because it was a requirement for my Mechanical Engineering degree at The University of Aston in Birmingham.
Two of the reasons that the course at Aston appealed to me were that it had a common first year with most of the engineering courses so you could decide your path at the end of your first year and most importantly, it was a four year course with all students spending the third year in industry. I had an amazing four years obtaining getting a First Class Honours degree and the year in industry gave me a clearer idea of what I wanted to do with my degree.
During my year in industry I worked for a large group of companies called Delta (described then as ‘the biggest company that you’ve never heard of’) and upon graduating, I joined their Graduate Training Scheme. I did a number of placements, including one in Australia and came to realise that I preferred the fast paced environment of manufacturing. Aged 26 I found myself in a dream job, running production lines for Mars Confectionery, managing a team of 60, surrounded by chocolate, making 3 million Mars bars a day!
Engineering comes in many guises, from software engineering through to petrochemical engineering. As a degree subject it is tough and therefore as a qualification it is very well respected and opens doors to all kinds of opportunities. I strongly recommend it to you.