Girls Speak Out on Physics Education

Do you think there are as many women astronomers as there are men? Did anyone out there in blog-reading-land answer yes? I doubt it. At least in the United States and Great Britain it's no secret that there are more men than women employed in science, technology, engineering and math-related (STEM) fields. Why? Well, that's a good question and many explanations have been advanced.

Recently, I watched an outstanding video on titled KS3/4 Science – Physics – Girls Speak Out. This video features a visit by three women to the Haydon School in London. Their goal was to determine why so few girls choose to study physics. They wanted to know what girls themselves have to say on this important topic. As I expected, there were multiple explanations:

  • The girls didn't see the relevance of the physics lessons to their future. For example, the girls in one class could only think of one job that would be available with a physics degree: a physics teacher. The girls in another class recognized that other career opportunities would be available (e.g., pilots, doctors and engineers) but indicated that "lots" of girls don't want to be pilots or engineers because these are more "manly" jobs.
  • Teachers have told the girls "it's (physics) more of a boys subject" and the girls seemed to agree with this.
  • "Mixed classes (boy and girls) are one of the barriers to girls doing well in physics". (Interestingly, the girls believed they would do better in a girls-only class but that it would be less fun without the boys around.)
  • Teachers sometimes encourage boys more than girls and sometimes indicate that the boys are more capable than the girls. According to the girls, boys get more attention in physics classes than girls regardless of the teacher’s gender.
  • The girls believe that women have not taken physics as far as men and it's only men who have become well known. One girl said, "we have less chance so there's no point in trying"

After viewing this video several times, I have come to this conclusion: the girls in this video are less interested in physics than the boys largely because the girls have no role models. The girls are very pragmatic; they want to see how physics relates to their future job opportunities. In their view, the jobs open to people with physics degrees are jobs for men.

I think it is incumbent upon all of us to help girls and young women recognize that there are many women involved in science. Therefore, I have decided to post a list of women involved in astronomy that I believe serve as excellent role models. In most cases, I am familiar with these women because I follow them on Twitter. I would encourage you to follow them on Twitter, too (their Twitter usernames are listed after their full names). In addition, all of these women, except for one, have their own personal web sites or blogs. Please share this list of names with the girls and young women in your life:

  • Tania Burchell – @RadioAstroGal. Tania is a science writer and media producer for the NRAO (National Radio Astronomy Observatory). Tania just returned from ALMA (the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) in Chile. While there she did a fantastic job of documenting her trip and the ALMA facility. You can see her images and videos by visiting the NRAO Facebook page (see the link above).
  • Amanda Bauer – @astropixie. Amanda is an astronomer living in Sydney, Australia. One of Amanda's blog posts is particularly pertinent to this discussion. It is titled "the extended history of astropixie" and it describes how her science career started and discusses some of her views on gender bias in science, technology, engineering and math.
  • Pamela Gay – @starstryder. Pamela is "an astronomer, writer, podcaster focused on using new media to engage people in science and technology". She is the co-host of the excellent Astronomy Cast a weekly podcast that has been in production for 4 years. She also teaches at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
  • Sadie Jones – @MissSadieJones. Sadie is a student studying for her PhD in the UK. Her research focuses on investigating black holes using radio astronomy. I'm really impressed with Sadie's outreach efforts. Her Outreach Blog is really interesting. One blog post that seems particularly appropriate to this discussion is the one titled "How I ended up as an Astronomer".
  • Sarah Kendrew – @sarahkendrew. Sarah is a "Postdoc and Systems Engineer in astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany". Sarah works at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy. Her blog posts are very entertaining and educational. A good example would be a blog post she did recently titled Bubbles under the microscope that discusses the beautiful bubbles being seen in data from the Milkyway Project.
  • Karen Masters – @KarenLMasters. Karen is "an Astronomy researcher working at the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, University of Portsmouth, UK. Karen has been working on two projects with a large number of followers on Twitter: Galaxy Zoo and lofar-uk. In addition to her personal web site, Karen has a science-related blog named Beautiful Stars.
  • Adele Plunkett. Adele is a grad student at Yale University. Recently, Adele spent six nights as a guest observer at CARMA (Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy). Her blog posts on her work at CARMA were just fascinating. If you want to get a sense of what it's like to be a grad student working at a professional observatory you will really enjoy her posts.
  • Meg Schwamb – @megschwamb. Meg is an NSF (National Science Foundation) postdoctoral fellow at the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics and the Yale Physics Department. Meg's web page has a nice section on her research as well as links to her publications.
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