Rugby 2019

Barriers to physics

Jessica Rowson, Institute of Physics

For most of history, physicists have been pale and male. Is this changing? Jessica Rowland looked at recent successes and what can be done at a classroom level to encourage participation and progression of all, through contexts, careers and inclusive teaching techniques


What are the barriers?

Poor careers guidance;

Parental influence;

Other teachers, unfortunately;

Girls’ thinking the subject isn’t for them and other people thing physics isn’t for girls;

Not for creative kids;

Primary school teachers not encouraging;

People who don’t like maths;

Picking the subject minimizes choice

Children being in low socio-economic group

Physics is hard? —————— No it isn’t

Some factors

Literacy and numeracy levels

Experiences beyond school including expectations regarding future employment

Access to high quality, specialist teaching



“Science isn’t for me”

Most students like science – but few aspire to be scientists

Science Capital

The more science capital a student has, the more likely they are to aspire to be scientists.

The science capital teaching approach may help teachers engage with their students

At KS3 it will promote doing science at GCSE; At KS4 it will promote doing science at A level; At KS5 it will promote doing STEM at degree level

The process involves personalising and localising the subject

Valuing what students think and say

Building and engaging

Even a 3% improvement in science capital had the following effects in schools using the approach: From 5% to 21% improvement in students wanting to do science; From 27% to 42% improvement in students thinking science was relevant to their lives

There was also changed in out of school practices


It was discovered that young people are more likely to continue maths and physics post-16:

If they have been encouraged to do so by a key adult – either a family member who believes in the worth of these subjects, or a teacher;

If they believe they will gain from studying the subject in terms or job satisfaction or material rewards such as a good salary;

If they are good at the subject and can show they understand it in depth;

If they have been well-taught.

There is a cumulative effect

What about girls?

Only about 21-23% of physics students are female. Why?

Gender stereotypes;

Shortage of physics teachers;

Girls don’t think physics is for them;

It is hard;

They don’t know what they can do with physics;

Lack of careers advice

Smash the stereotypes

Be supportive

Be inclusive

Good teaching

To understand how to smash stereotypes you need to understand them. Unfortunately, the unconscious brain gets working. This is difficult to change. It has been shown that adults tend to treat very young children differently if they know they are boys or girls.

There are inherent expectations by gender

Girls are appreciated for their appearance (they need to be made to see that this is not important other than being healthy)

Boys are appreciated for their work (although young men are increasingly becoming more body conscious)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s