IOP focuses on gender balance and research by school students at teacher conference

24 January 2017

Sessions on improving the gender balance in physics and bringing independent research projects into the school curriculum were among the IOP’s inputs to the four-day Association for Science Education (ASE) conference on 4–7 January, with a talk by the Institute’s Charles Tracy chosen as one of 12 keynote events to be highlighted in the conference programme.

IOP focuses on gender balance and research by school students at teacher conference

The annual event attracts around 2,000 science teachers and offers hundreds of talks, practical sessions, debates and shows as well as an extensive exhibition. It was held this year at the University of Reading, where the IOP’s head of education, Charles Tracy, and gender balance manger pre-19, Jessica Rowson, both gave talks on improving gender balance in the take-up of physics in schools.

Tracy’s talk, Improving Gender Balance: A new approach, focused on the thinking and research that has been done on why there is not a higher take-up of physics among girls, particularly at A-level. He discussed the IOP’s work in this area as well as some theories that have been put forward by others.

Describing several of the Institute’s research projects and reports – including It’s Different For Girls (on how different types of school influence girls’ choices), Closing Doors (on gender stereotyping in six subjects including some humanities), and Opening Doors (a good practice guide to countering gender stereotyping), he explained how the IOP’s research and experience had led it towards advocating an approach that includes working with the whole school staff.

Rowson’s was a hands-on practical session focusing on what schools and teachers could do to improve the gender balance in physics. She discussed students and teachers’ unconscious biases and how these can affect the different experiences that girls and boys have in the physics classroom, provided tips on promoting a more equitable environment and involved participants in practical exercises and discussions.

IOP focuses on gender balance and research by school students at teacher conference

During the session and more widely throughout the conference, she distributed copies of the IOP’s summary leaflet Improving Gender Balance: Results and recommendations from the IOP’s work in schools. This describes the Improving Gender Balance (IGB) project, as well as the Drayson Girls in Physics Pilot Project, which worked in six schools. It also summarises the recommendations of the IGB project, including appointing a gender champion, training teachers appropriately, using data, rethinking science clubs and increasing students’ awareness and engagement.

The IOP also joined with the Royal Society, Royal Society of Biology, Royal Society of Chemistry and the Wellcome Trust in hosting a debate on benefits and barriers to bringing school students’ independent research projects into the curriculum. The debate was well attended and stimulated some discussion on twitter at #talksci. Some of the points raised were that doing such projects could give students an insight into what it is like to do science at undergraduate level or as a career and how it could enthuse students, but also that there are practical issues around cost, supervision and time.

Commenting after the conference, Rowson said: “The ASE conference was a valuable opportunity to raise awareness around gender stereotyping and unconscious bias and how they can affect classroom environments. If we want more girls to study physics, we need to look at what is happening in schools on a more holistic basis.”