Forum: Physics Appeal / a Conference to Whets Girls' Appetites for Physics

By

NINA HALL

THERE is an amusing definition of school laboratory experiments: 'If

it wriggles it's biology, if it stinks it's chemistry, if it doesn't work

it's physics.' Unfortunately, this negative view of science contains more

than an atom of truth. As far as physics goes, school students, particularly

girls, often do not have the faintest idea of what physics is really about.

Messing about with a collection of mirrors, lenses, bits of wire and

batteries at the school bench may seem to have little to do with anything,

other than usually failing to get the required straight line on a piece

of graph paper to verify some not-quite-understood equation.

Poor teaching combined with unimaginative course work often gives girls

the impression that physics is dry, dull and difficult with little relevance

to 'life', whether of the everyday kind or more loftily as in 'life, the

Universe and everything'. Most overworked schoolteachers are more concerned

with getting to grips with the GCSE or A-level syllabus than putting physics

into a broader cultural and social context. They rarely point out that physics,

once called natural philosophy, underpins our understanding of nature, and

that physics graduates rarely visit the labour exchange.

Small wonder then that the majority of teenage girls, who are generally

more socially aware and practically minded than their male contemporaries,

decide that physics is not for them. However, a con ference held at University

College London last month is trying to change that situation. The event

was the third in a series of sixth-form conferences called 'Women in physics'.

UCL started the conference partly for political and economic reasons. Its

physics department, like those of many other British universities, has found

it difficult to attract good students. Grade C passes in two science subjects

at A-level is enough to secure a place.

UCL realised that girls represented a huge untapped source of potential

physics undergraduates. So it decided to try to persuade girls that physics

is fun to study at university, especially in a college in the heart of the

metropolis, and that a physics degree can lead to an interesting career.

The conference successfully managed to give its 115 attendees a feeling

for the excitement of the subject. The various speakers demonstrated how

physics is a quest for knowledge on a grand scale, with discussions on cosmology,

particle physics and a trip to the university astronomical observatory.

There were talks on the more practical sides of physics in industry

and medicine. Caroline Bowry, a research physicist at the GEC Hirst Research

Centre, pointed out that the company was striving for a more balanced intake

of men and women graduates. During the three days of the conference, the

girls also had the chance to carry out simple laboratory experiments using

equipment and materials not available in the average school lab, such as

liquid nitrogen and dry ice.

Grabriella Branduardi, an Italian physicist and one of the organisers

of the conference, was anxious to point out that physics is fun to do and

not as difficult as people think. Branduardi is surprised that physics is

considered a boys' subject in Britain. She blames the narrowness of the

education system with its overspecialisation between 16 and 18. In Italy,

no one is allowed to drop science at this age, she says, so girls have more

time to come to grips with the subject.

Nevertheless, things are changing. The enthusiasm pervading the conference

showed that typical teenage girls sporting the latest skinny mini or trendy

fluorescent cycling shorts, who are into dancing to Prince or Soul 11 Soul

are, nowadays, just as likely to be into electronics and astronomy. This

year, there were twice as many applicants as places for the conference.

Other physics departments should take note.

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