Frequently by the time girls start senior school they have already formed their own strong ideas about whether they like physics or not. We can not change this pre-existing disposition but, as teachers and educators, we can try to sway it. There are some simple aesthetic changes that can be made in a physics class room that will help to re-engage girls who believe physics is not their cup-of-tea. These are not pedagogical shifts, merely ‘tweaks’ that can be made with minimal effort but potentially significant results.
The context of worked examples/questions you use
The context in which you set your questions is possibly one of the easiest things to alter to boost engagement. Most girls do not relate to car suspensions, rockets, guns firing bullets, aeroplanes, lorries, cranes, pliers or tractors tipping over. Think about selecting a context without overly ‘male’ associations. Writing questions about the heating effect of current? Use hair-straighteners. Questions about force and springs? Use a hairband instead.
The use of images
What is a Powerpoint Presentation without some images to illustrate your point? Here are two examples for a lesson introducing energy types.
Just a couple of changes and the slide on the left (which I have to admit to using in the past) becomes the far more engaging slide on the right (which I have also used). The images you select can have a substantial effect on your audience, select wisely.
The use of colour
What colour are your physics textbooks? I have 17 in my bookshelf and apart a couple of red/yellow offerings the majority are blue. There is nothing wrong with blue, I am wearing blue as I write this; but it is not the most gender non-specific colour out there. I know that you can do nothing about the colour of your textbooks but you do have discretion over the use of colour elsewhere in your lessons. Don’t panic, I am not suggesting you make everything pink though.
Be aware of colour next time you prepare a presentation (headings, frames around images, text colour, backgrounds). If you have a say in the matter, ask for exercise books in a colour other than blue (all the schools I have taught in have used blue for physics books). If you are allowed to print on coloured card for matching and sorting activities, think about which shade you use.
The use of female pronoun in questions
Think about how you phrase the questions you set your students. Do they all start with ‘Andrew threw a ball..’; ‘George launched a rocket….’. Try to keep the gender use in your questions balanced.
Reference to female role models
In teaching, we often highlight the work of particular scientists and industry leaders. Obviously when teaching Newton’s Laws, Boyle’s Laws, Rutherford’s alpha scattering experiment or any of the other essential course content explicitly linked to male achievement then celebrate it. If you have an opportunity to discuss other scientists or industry innovators then have a quick look for a female one. If you have outside speakers for careers events, science clubs or assemblies then see if you can keep the gender balance equal. A great place to start is the WISE Campaign for ideas, inspiration, tips and advice. Show your girls that there are amazing women in the world of physics who can inspire them.
The way you present physics on your displays sends a message to everyone in the room. Make sure that message is a positive one for everybody. All the tips discussed in this piece can be applied to make your notice boards more engaging for your female students.
Choose the context of your display so it has maximum appeal. Select images to inspire all your students. Pick your colours to complement one another. Keep the look simple and sleek; make your display attractive and neat. Keep the gender balance equal in the student work you display. Use female scientists as examples.
Why not take a day in the summer to update your notice boards and see what a difference it makes.