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Fostering Physics Identity to Support Young Women in Physics: A Focus on Interest

Lindsay Mainhood, OCT, recent M.Ed. graduate and current research assistant at Queen’s University.

The underrepresentation of women in physics is apparent at all levels of education and in nearly all countries of the world. When looking at the metaphorical leaky pipeline that supplies the field of physics with women, the largest “leak” or loss of young women from physics occurs in the period between the end of secondary education and the first year of post-secondary education (McCullough, 2002). At this time, we see women’s participation in physics education decline from 36% to 20% across Canada, a 16% loss of women from physics education (NSERC, 2010). According to other physics education research, high school is the period of education most likely to spark young women’s physics interests (Ivie, Cuzjko, & Stowe, 2001). This is of educational concern given that most young women reject physics in the period immediately after experiencing high school physics (Hazari & Potvin, 2005).

How might physics education be failing at recruiting and retaining young women? This article focuses in on findings from a study that sought to understand girls’ experiences of barriers (any factor that negatively influences their ideas and feelings about studying physics) in high school physics education. Nine women, who are now studying in a variety of Ontario university programs at undergraduate and graduate levels, met four times in a group setting as part of the research study to discuss their experiences in high school physics classes. This article offers teacher-oriented recommendations based on factors that influence young women’s ideas and feelings about studying physics.

Physics Identity
As a lens through which young women’s experiences could be understood, the study relied on the concept of physics identity, or the degree to which a student feels they are a “physics person” (Hazari, Brewe, Goertzen, & Hodapp, 2017, p. 96). A strong physics identity is dependent on the development of four feelings that comprise physics identity. These are feelings of interest, competence, performance, and recognition. Feelings of interest, the development of which is the focus of this article, are feelings of curiosity and attentiveness in learning physics. Feelings of competence are those of understanding physics concepts, while feelings of performance are those of being able to complete physics tasks such as labs and problem solving successfully. Feelings of recognition are those a student has of others, such as family, peers, and teachers perceiving them as a physics person. Research suggests that physics identity is a predictor of students’ career choice, persistence, and engagement in physics (Hazari, Sonnert, Sadler, & Shanahan, 2010). For this reason, the development and support of students’ physics identity can be argued to be an essential foundation for successful and continued physics learning.

After listening to and studying the women’s discussions in-depth, their experiences clearly revealed barriers to their physics identity. Interest, as one component of physics identity and the focus of this article, was found to be important in determining how engaged or disengaged with physics the young women felt. Feelings of interest and disinterest were found to be meaningful to the young women in decision-making about further physics education.

Young women’s feelings of interest going into their first physics course ranged from general excitement to dread, and these feelings fluctuated greatly throughout the course’s progression for each individual. The finding of greatest concern was the association of physics with feelings of exasperation, which many of the women readily recounted and described through specific experiences. The women’s stories of lived experience formed the basis for two developments: first, a research-based understanding of how young women in high school physics experience barriers to their feelings of interest in learning physics, and second, a practice-oriented set of recommendations for high school physics teachers to support girls’ feelings of interest in their classes.

Twelve Recommendations for Teachers
Twelve recommendations were formed in response to the women’s discussions about their high school physics experiences. The recommendations were formed either from the women’s explicit suggestions to teachers, or from their discourse around various barriers that the women experienced during their high school physics education. Specifically, the recommendations are intended to provide actions for teachers to take to increase interest in young women as physics learners. In a broad sense, the recommendations are intended to support and encourage teachers to foster gender-equity in high school physics learning. Below are the recommendations, some of which are accompanied by a brief explanation, participant quotation, further action, or a combination of these.

1. Demystify physics
Many participants felt they lacked an interpretation of the subject of physics and identified it as an “unknown” subject, despite having previously studied two units in Grade 9 and Grade 10. Teachers must identify and introduce physics language and phenomena regularly, intentionally, and confidently.

2. Provide a purpose and goal for learning physics
One main reason participants gave for taking high school physics focused on attaining university prerequisites, counter to interest-based enrollment. Teachers can bring purpose to physics learning through learning goal-oriented activities that explore physics-related career opportunities, current physics research initiatives or findings, or the social relevance of physics in students’ lives (e.g., environmental, technological).

3. Offer exciting and fascinating learning opportunities
“Exciting” and “fascinating” are words participants continually used to describe their learning experiences with engaging (not merely entertaining) learning experiences. For example, demonstration-based learning activities such as “Predict, Observe, Explain.” This is a learning activity model that may be applied to any observable event. As one participant, Samantha, recalled, her first fascination with physics occurred during an inertia demonstration by her teacher: “That one particular moment, it was fascinating for some reason.”

4. Offer hands-on learning opportunities
Related to the idea that participants preferred progressive and dynamic pedagogies rather than traditional and static pedagogies, teachers can increase students’ interest in physics by engaging students in hands-on learning about physics phenomena. Physics lends itself remarkably well to being learned through touch, creation, movement, manipulation, and exploration.

5. Offer in-depth laboratory explorations or projects
Participants’ interest in physics increased during involved projects, both in terms of length of time and depth of exploration. For example, Louise spoke about a week-long experiment using ramps and a ball: “We had to try to get the ball into a tin can…it was a week-long exploration thing and I loved it.” When students are invested in a project for an extended duration and through various modes, their interest is more likely to be sustained.

6. Frame physics as fun
“In Grade 12 we did a Rube Goldberg machine, which is a series of reactions, and it was the most fun I’ve ever had. I’ve never worked harder on anything in my life, even in university, just because I was so fascinated with it,” said one participant. It is recommended that teachers guide student learning while they are having fun with physics. This approach stimulates learning in an already positive and enjoyable event. As Rachel described: “I remember having a really good day. I really enjoyed doing physics that day because I was outside and I was with my friends at [the amusement park], which I really loved. That definitely made me much more interested.”

7. Apply physics to the human body
For many participants, their greatest interest in physics developed when concepts were applied to the human body. One participant said, “It’s cool to apply to the body.” Framing physics this way, she said, “made physics make a lot more sense…it made me a lot more interested in it.” As the great mystery that the human body can be to many learners, it provides a very relevant application for physics phenomena that many participants remember being highly interested in learning about.

8. Apply physics to the real world and everyday life
Making connections to other important and interesting ideas that students have is the rationale for applying physics to the real world and everyday life. It is important to make physics relevant to all learners as individuals and especially to young women, whose interest in learning physics has not historically been reinforced. If teachers cannot always give students choice to learn from topics of interest, another tactic to increase interest is by making the uninteresting, interesting. To do so, a teacher might demonstrate physics phenomena in ordinary objects or occurrences. For example, one participant said about a ketchup bottle demonstration revealing the nature of different liquids: “Even though it was a simple thing…I just felt like it answered a lot of questions in general life.” Other participant comments included: “Seeing it in real life just made it so exciting to talk about and have it be relevant.” “The more I learned about it and the more I could make connections with either math class or the real world, the more interested I got in it.”

9. Connect physics to other subjects
In the same spirit of making relevant connections to students’ existing interests and lives, connecting physics to other subjects can increase students’ interest in physics. As an example, one participant found she was most interested in physics when she got to do a presentation on the microscope, since it involved both her interest in another field of science and what she felt was an aptitude of hers for making presentations. When students recognize connections between different fields, they can understand the relevance of physics, which may spark and sustain their interest in learning it.

10. Encourage physics learning through discussions
The experience of talking with their teacher and peers was a part of learning physics that all participants found to be both enjoyable and important in supporting their understanding of physics concepts. Different than a formal question period, discussions allow students to think aloud and learn from each other's thoughts. Focused on one another, rather than solely on the teacher, students can be more comfortable and keen engaging in the learning process.

11. Encourage students to collaborate with peers
Working together in the library, talking about homework and assignments, and having continued conversations about physics outside of class are experiences participants reported having had as a result of in-class collaboration with their peers in physics class. It is suggested that collaborative learning experiences increase student interest because the learning experience occurs alongside peers; depending on the individual student, this potentially feels more comforting, lower-stakes, exploratory, inspiring, social, fun, and like a meaningful learning experience.

12. Support the other three components of physics identity
All four components of physics identity must be supported in order for students to have full opportunity to root their identities in physics. Interest was a component of physics identity strongly influenced by the other components. When participants’ competence or performance was perceived to be low (by themselves and/or others), or they felt lack of recognition as a physics student, their interest in learning physics plummeted. While these 12 recommendations serve to help teachers increase young women’s interest in physics, teachers must work to develop and maintain all components of physics identity in each student.

The evidence of participants’ disinterest in physics was strikingly obvious based on the stories they shared of their experiences in high school physics. Their experiences confirmed that low interest in physics can act as a significant barrier to successful and continued study of physics. Feelings of interest and disinterest in physics were found to be meaningful to young women in their decision-making about future physics endeavors. Although a complex task for teachers, working to inspire and sustain interest in young women is critical when considering the larger picture of underrepresentation of women in physics. For teachers and all educators alike, the above recommendations can be viewed as the voices of learners, which may encourage teachers in their efforts to support young women’s interest in physics.

Continued thanks are due to the nine generous women who recalled and told stories of their experiences in high school physics and contributed to the development of the above recommendations.

  1. Hazari, Z., Brewe, E., Goertzen, R. M., & Hodapp, T. (2017). The importance of high school physics teachers for female students’ physics identity and persistence. The Physics Teacher, 55(2), 96–99. doi:10.1119/1.4974122
  2. Hazari, Z., & Potvin, G. (2005). Views on female under–representation in physics: Retraining women or reinventing physics?. Electronic Journal of Science Education, 10(1). Retrieved from http://wolfweb.unr.edu/homepage/crowther/ejse/potvin.pdf
  3. Hazari, Z., Sonnert, G., Sadler, P. M., & Shanahan, M. C. (2010). Connecting high school physics experiences, outcome expectation, physics identity, and physics career choice: A gender study. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47, 978–1003.
  4. Ivie, R., Cuzjko, R., & Stowe, K. (2001) Women physicists speak: The 2001 international study of women in physics (American Institute of Physics Report). Retrieved from http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/gendertrends.html.
  5. McCullough, L. (2002). Women in physics: A review. The Physics Teacher, 40, 86–91. doi:10.1119/1.1457312
  6. Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. (2010). Women in science and engineering in Canada. Ottawa, ON: Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
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