Boys are better at science!
That sentence is, of course, untrue, but it is one that I have heard far too often in my career as a physics teacher. Worse still, it is a myth that self-reinforces: many people have strong opinions on why fewer girls take physics in particular, but in reality one of the biggest barriers is the outmoded assumption that the physical sciences are the preserve of the male.
When allowed to explore their interests, many girls find that they excel at science and it is a source of great pride that nearly 25 per cent of our sixth form at Badminton choose to carry on studying physics after their GCSEs.
The key to teaching both girls and boys is to find ways of making the subject exciting to them and to help them realise their aspirations. At Badminton, freed from the shackles of the national curriculum and with the resources to tread some more unusual paths, we have built a programme that allows our sixth-form girls to explore their interest in physics, chemistry and biology and to communicate this interest with others – particularly children – so that they become role models.
One aspect of the programme is for our girls to deliver ‘science shows’ in local primary schools; they receive several months of training and then go into the schools to be a teacher for a morning. To teach someone and field their questions requires a much deeper level of understanding than one gains through studying for examinations, and the joy of seeing wonder in the eyes of younger pupils provides an incentive for the girls to attain this understanding and to develop a taste for learning for a specific purpose rather than just to pass the next examination.
Now in its fourth year, the science outreach programme has two different shows that are currently reaching around 600 junior school pupils each year. The first show gives our girls the opportunity to work with liquid nitrogen – a substance that you would only normally get to work with at university. It is a privilege to work with the girls as they prepare to give their shows, watching them absorb the physics that underpins the demonstrations and to see their confidence blossom as they learn how to explain abstract concepts to younger children. Doing a show in external schools is also a logistical challenge, so the girls also become adept with a host of transferrable project management skills through active participation in all aspects of preparing and delivering the shows.
Our second show is called ‘Bangs and Flashes’ and is again delivered by the girls, with staff support for a few more dangerous (and exciting!) demonstrations. As suggested by the title, this show gives the girls an opportunity to be positive role models as chemists – another area where females are traditionally under-represented.
There are many other aspects to our outreach programme. A couple of years ago, Apple released iBookAuthor – software that allows one to create iBooks that can be distributed through the iBook store. Almost everyone would like to become an author and at Badminton, we give our girls the opportunity to do this, enabling the participants to realise their aspirations through learning and communicating, while sharing their enthusiasm for the sciences with a wider audience.
So far we have published a book on molecular gastronomy called ‘From Test Tube to Taste Buds’ that explores the science behind some novel cooking techniques. Over the next year we will be publishing books on our liquid nitrogen show, on chip pan fires and one produced in conjunction with the Original Bristol Blue Glass on the chemistry and physics of glass.
At Badminton we don’t just enable girls to succeed with science, we give them the opportunity to disprove the myth that boys are better at science. Better than that, we let them enjoy exploring science and that, we are sure, is the key to success.
David Williams is educational visits coordinator, head of science outreach and physics teacher at Badminton School, Bristol