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This School Is Getting Girls Into Physics

The gap between boys and girls in math and engineering starts early and continues through college. But a school in the UK is trying to buck that trend

smithsonian.com

When you think of a physicist, chances are you don’t think of a woman. And you’re not necessarily wrong, either. The vast majority of physicists are male. The gap between boys and girls in math and engineering seems to start early and continue through college. But one school in the UK is trying to alter this state of affairs. The Guardian reports:

Lampton is bucking the national trend, with a quarter of girls studying physics at A-level. Jessica Hamer, a science teacher at the school, attributes this to a concerted effort on their part to counteract any negative stereotypes about what physicists might do, or be like, in the real world: “We realised there was a dearth of girls, so we tried to get more speakers and role models to come into the school and talk to the pupils.”

The impact has been noticeable, and the girls I meet are extremely bright and enthusiastic about their chosen subject. “It’s very encouraging to know there are women out there who have actually succeeded,” says Sadaf Rezay, 16, who is taking physics A-level. “But there aren’t that many on TV or in the media,” counters Alice Williams. “Physics is not all just theory. A lot of people think it’s theory, theory, theory, and that puts them off. You need to see how it’s applied practically as well. It’s involved in everything we do: you pick up a book – that’s mechanics. You throw a ball – that’s mechanics … Nuclear fusion could be used potentially as alternative energy.”

In the United States, schools could learn from Lampton’s approach. Just 21 percent of bachelor’s degrees, and 17 percent of PhDs in physics go to women. And even once women become scientists, the discrimination persists. Physics Today writes:

The low representation of women in physics is a problem the community needs to address, but the community also needs to address inequities in access to resources and opportunities. Cultural expectations about home and family also inhibit the progress of women physicists; those, of course, are much more difficult to change. Nonetheless, we look forward to a future in which science truly means science for all.

There are challenges at every step, essentially, but providing women with a supportive environment in high school could help put them on the right track. The Guardian says that the community that Lampton fosters, where girls do physics together, really helps:

Did these forthright, clever girls feel peer pressure not to study physics, I wonder? Rezay nods. “I think in year 10 and 11, girls are put off because of peer pressure and none of their friends are doing it.”

“It’s not cool to be clever at the moment, especially as a girl,” adds Williams. “Boys don’t mind being thought of as geeks, but girls do. I do English lit as well, and I’m the only one in the class who also takes physics. Everyone in the class was kind of like, ‘You do physics?’” She curls her lip in disgust. “But we’re good because we’ve got a whole group of friends .”

More from Smithsonian.com:

Women in Science
Women of Science on the Smithsonian Channel

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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