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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