Gender and Science

In response to staff requests and feedback, Kristin has embarked on a self-directed professional learning program which supports faculty in conducting action research projects. The action research model used is an inquiry based cyclic model of planning, acting, observing and reflecting. The model is also collaborative, which allows staff to work together in an area of shared interest, across curricular areas and year levels.

At the conclusion of the professional learning period, staff present their research to their colleagues and also produce a document  (format is up to individual staff) that can be shared and will be used to contribute to a school knowledge base of research and expertise.

This April, at the end of our 3 days of professional learning, the first of these action research projects was presented. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing some of these fantastic research projects with you.

This week’s post comes to us from Matthew Campbell, Head of Faculty Science here at Kristin. Matthew has also published this research on LinkedIn and you can read it here. Thank you Matthew for your sharing your intriguing research with us. 


Gender and Science

Action Research Project 2017-2018
Matthew Campbell, Head of Faculty Science, Kristin School, Albany, Auckland, NZ

The PISA 2015 survey found that on average, across the OECD countries, boys’ mean performance in science is 4 points higher than girls’. In New Zealand, boys outperform girls by 5 points. This gender difference is numerically small but statistically significant.

This enquiry explores the gender differences in science in Kristin school, looking at results, numbers choosing subjects and student attitudes to the sciences. 

L1 science external results 2017

To analyse performance of boys and girls in the three sciences, I have selected the 2017 Level 1 science external results. These three externals are sat in one session so are comparable in one sense but the style of the three papers vary with genetics being worth literacy credits (writing) and mechanics worth numeracy credits. I have not selected internals for comparison in this enquiry although there is likely to be differences in performance by gender. 

In mechanics, a physics external, Kristin outperformed other decile 10 schools, particularly the boys with 13% more attaining excellence and 24% more attaining merit and excellence. For girls the difference was only 11%. At Kristin, boys did slightly better than girls, but this is in contrast with the national data. 

In acids & bases, a chemistry external, the difference between Kristin and other decile 10 schools is less pronounced with similar proportions attaining excellence but 13% more boys attained merit and excellence grades. For Kristin girls, the difference was 10%. In general, girls did better than boys, both at Kristin and nationally. 

In genetics, a biology external, the gender imbalance is perhaps the most obvious of the three externals. Kristin boys attained similar excellence grades to other decile 10 schools but 14% more merit and excellence grades overall. Kristin girls had 10% more excellences but similar proportion of merits so 10% more merit and excellence grades overall. In general, girls have done much better than boys in this external. 

Key conclusions

  • Kristin boys and girls outperform national decile 10 schools with higher proportions of merit and excellence grades in all three science externals
  • Kristin girls did better than boys in chemistry and biology, but boys did better than girls in physics which is in contrast with other decile 10 schools
  • Overall this does not concur with the findings of the PISA as in general Kristin girls have performed better than boys

Choice of science by gender 2018

As students will often select subjects they are “good at” based on Level 1 results, does this have an effect on the gender of students choosing biology, chemistry and physics? 

Essentially yes – more boys than girls choose physics, whether NCEA or IB although with a female to male ratio of approximately 1:2 this is a lot more balanced than some schools. What is starkly apparent is that more girls choose biology than boys, and a lot more with a female to male ratio of about 8:1.

Student attitudes to science

To explore why students choose particular sciences courses I sent a questionnaire to students in year 10 to 13. The survey was based on an exemplar questionnaire by the Institute of Physics and asked questions on views about science, interest and level of understanding of particular topics, as well as attitudes towards physics, science teaching and behaviour of boys and girls in science classes. It was completed by 141 students (94 female, 45 male and 2 preferred not to say). As Google Forms does not allow responses to be filtered by gender I have used the Advanced Summary by Awesome Tables plugin for Google Forms to filter by gender. This tool provided an adequate way of summarising responses in pie charts to each question in the survey but it does not use consistent colouring to the “strongly agree” or “agree” responses for example.

The results of the survey can be explored here:

https://awesome-table.com/-LAGK9gDHaCECYD7QRd2/view

Views on science 

There is little difference in views on science between the genders but more girls like science to understand themselves and the world, whereas more boys strongly like science because it’s relevant to their lives.

The PISA survey found that on average across OECD countries, 25% of boys and 24% of girls reported that they expect to work in a science-related occupation. In my survey 66% of girls and 68.8% of boys said that they like science because it’s relevant to the kind of work they want to do. 

Reasons for studying science

Once again both genders mostly agree with the reasons for studying science with the girls rating the importance for the future of the environment as the most important reason whereas the boys ranked importance to understand the world around them as the top reason. 

Interest in science topics

Students were asked to indicate interest in a selection of biology, chemistry and physics topics. The girls top five topics were fighting disease, stars, planets, genetics and circulation – strongly biology topics with space science. Electric circuits, rocks and metals, light and waves, carbon chemistry and electromagnetism were five topics considered dull by the girls.

The boys rated forces and energy, planets, electromagnetism, genetics and stars as their top five interesting topics – strongly physics topics with a biology topic. Whereas plants, respiration, circulation, chemical equations and rocks and metals were rated as dull (plant structure significantly so).

The interest in topics mirrors the gender distribution we have at Kristin; girls find biological topics more interesting so more choose to study biology and boys find physics more interesting so more choose to study physics. 

Experience of physics

I asked students to reflect on their experience of physics and consider whether they agree or disagree with some statements. About three-quarters of both boys and girls agreed physics was interesting (boys more strongly so) and knew what physics is (boys more strongly). Boys found physics more enjoyable and more girls said it was difficult. A stark difference was that boys found physics more relevant to their learning and their career. However, when asked if they thought “physics is a boys’ subject,” 86% of girls and 71% of boys disagreed with this statement.

Clearly students do not believe in the old physics stereotype that physics is a boys’ subject but by the senior school it is clear that more boys have decided to do physics as it is relevant to their future studies and careers.

I also allowed students to comment on their experience of physics and here are a few of their comments:

Didn’t find mechanics in NCEA Level 1 interesting, didn’t continue physics in IB

Used to really enjoy it, especially when learning physics NCEA level 1. I don't enjoy it so much now because IB Physics is very hard and there is too much content to learn in a short time

Physics is challenging but a good subject to have. Unfortunately maths is a big part and maths can be challenging.

I really wish I had taken IB physics, I find it very interesting however felt going in to IB that I did not have as much experience with physics as I should have so was too scared to take it.

These comments highlight the limitations of our L1 science course which, unless students do advanced or further science, focuses on mechanics and electricity achievement standards so students have a very narrow foundation of physics and find year 12 and 13 hard. 

Good science teachers

Students were asked whether they agree or disagree with statements about traits of a good science teacher. Here there is strong concordance between the two sexes, with “makes science interesting”, “helps you when you don’t understand”, “knows lots about their science specialism”, “allows us to talk through our ideas” and “gives us time to think about ideas before moving on” as top traits of effective science teachers. Having specialist science teachers teaching their specialism in our year 11 courses would be beneficial in making the course interesting, helping with misconceptions and in adding the depth of knowledge that only a specialist can bring.

“Doesn’t allow talking”, “expects us to know the answers quickly”, “gives us regular tests” and “keeps the pressure up so that we do well in exams” were the lowest ranked traits of good science teachers by both genders. This is perhaps indicative of the culture of over-assessment and examination-anxiety experienced by these students.

Perhaps surprisingly “lets us do practical work” is not strongly selected by either boys or girls and is similar in ratings. Doing practical work is often touted as a characteristic of why boys enjoy science but this survey does not strongly show this and there is no difference between boys and girls. This could be due skewed by the more diligent Kristin students that volunteered to complete the survey or that practical work is well embedded into our courses so they do not feel the need for more. 

Student perceptions of boys and girls in science

In the final section, I asked students to consider the behaviour of boys and girls in science and decide whether each statement applied to boys, girls or both.

Both male and female respondents said that girls were most diligent in doing homework and doing writing up carefully, more likely to ask for help with practical work and do the best in internal assessments, whereas both sexes responded that boys were more confident in discussion and answered questions in whole-class sessions.

A key difference between the genders is when asked whether boys are girls are more likely to continue with physics. Nearly a quarter of girls felt that boys were more likely to continue with physics, whereas over 90% of boys felt that both the boys and the girls would continue. Perhaps boys see no reason why either gender cannot continue with the subject, but girls see more of a gender bias that puts them off. 

Other questionnaire feedback

I did not tell students that I was doing research about gender in science, but many students recognised this theme as in the comment section I received comments like:

PLEASE DONT BE SEXIST

A lot of it is very sex based, try to avoid this.

I don’t think gender effects the students interest and ability to do physics

Kind of a bit misogynistic, don’t cha think? The 'physics is a boys’ subject' question, and the whole final question? I don't care enough to be offended, but if I were you, I'd word my questions a wee bit better in future.

I think that it's really good that you're asking about gender issues in science at Kristin – particularly in physics I think that this is something that needs attention.

But also:

Yeah the boys are only more confident in discussions because they have been told their whole lives that their opinions matter, whereas the girls in the class are a little quieter because they have been taught that their opinions matter less or that being quiet is a thing they should be

Conclusion

The PISA 2015 survey found that in New Zealand, boys outperform girls. In Level 1, Kristin girls did better than boys in chemistry and biology, but boys did better than girls in physics which was in contrast with other decile 10 schools in 2017. Overall this does not concur with the findings of the PISA as in general Kristin girls have performed better than boys.

Kristin has a gender imbalance in physics with twice as many boys than girls, which although imbalanced is less severe than other schools. Biology is significantly more imbalanced, with a female to male ratio of 8:1.

As physics is my subject specialism I focused much of the research on why few girls choose physics. I have found that it is not seen as a boys’ subject but boys found physics more enjoyable and more girls said it was difficult. A stark difference was that boys found physics more relevant to their learning and their career. This reflects the findings of the PISA survey that more boys see science as relevant to the kind of work they want to do.

Boys and girls have very similar views on and reasons for studying science: relevance to the environment and understanding the world around them. But when asked their interest in science topics we found a gender split: girls find biological topics more interesting and boys find physics topics more interesting.

I found evidence of the limitations of our Year 11 courses where the focus on assessment for Level 1 achievement standards limits the breadth of physics topics studied. Consequently, students find the transition to IB physics in year 12 hard.

Both sexes had similar opinions on what makes a good science teacher, with “makes science interesting” and “knows lots about their science specialism” some of the top traits of effective science teachers. Having specialist science teachers teaching their specialism in our year 11 courses would be beneficial in making the course interesting, helping with misconceptions and in adding the depth of knowledge that only a specialist can bring.

When boys and girls were asked about characteristics of boys and girls in science lessons they identified some interesting and stereotypical traits. Both male and female students said that girls were most diligent in doing homework and doing writing up carefully, more likely to ask for help with practical work and do the best in internal assessments, whereas both sexes responded that boys were more confident in discussion and answered questions in whole-class sessions. One respondent added “Yeah the boys are only more confident in discussions because they have been told their whole lives that their opinions matter, whereas the girls in the class are a little quieter because they have been taught that their opinions matter less or that being quiet is a thing they should be.” This shows that although we have made progress to tear down the views that “physics is a boys’ subject” we still have inherent underlying differences in how boys and girls are brought up which affects their confidence and career aspirations, which affects their choice of sciences.

Although I have explored the gender imbalance in physics in this enquiry and made recommendations for our year 11 courses with specialist teaching and more breadth of content, this should also have a positive impact on the more significant gender imbalance in biology where very few boys choose the subject.

Recommendations for Practice

The Institute of Physics made recommendations for practice for girls in physics and I have summarised some pertinent ones here. Many of the changes suggested simply represent good classroom practice and are likely to support both boys and girls in their learning.

School Culture and Ethos

  • Accentuate the positive wherever possible and avoid portraying physics as an essentially hard subject [or biology as an easy girls’ subject].
  • Take positive steps to reduce the impact of stereotyping. All staff, not just physics teachers, need to be well informed about the issues. In particular, teachers must avoid reinforcing stereotypes, endeavouring not to use mostly male examples when talking about occupations or interests.
  • Make sure that physics is viewed as a valuable subject in its own right, not just regarded as a qualification for careers in science and engineering.
  • Encourage collaborative approaches to the teaching and learning of physics and avoid domination by Individuals. 

Curriculum and its Organisation

  • Avoid fragmenting the pre-16 science curriculum more than absolutely necessary [very hard not to with NCEA Achievement Standards]; plan to make explicit links between related areas. The use of “mind/concept maps” or group preparation of displays summarising a topic may be a useful approach.
  • Give weight to continuity of specialist teaching when timetabling. If possible, enable pupils to experience the teaching style that is likely to be used post-16.

Classroom Organisation and Management

  • Distinguish between social (seating) groups and working groups and change the latter periodically.
  • Try out different groupings for most practical work and discussion, perhaps including single-sex groups as part of an overall strategy for improving the participation of girls.
  • Ensure that all girls play an active part in activities and do not just act as note-takers.
  • Group students according to their learning needs and aptitudes not for classroom control.

Questions and Answers

  • Decrease the use of hands-up, closed, rapid-response questions.
  • Encourage the view that there is not always a unique correct answer.
  • Give pupils the privacy and confidence to take risks when answering questions.
  • Try whiteboards for quick, individual responses.
  • Invite group discussion with a spokesperson as a way of lowering the stakes and encouraging collaborative learning.

Use of Language

  • Don’t use non-essential technical language or formulae as a shorthand for the physical laws during the early stages of learning.
  • Use students’ own everyday language as far as possible and encourage them to do the same until concepts are well established.
  • Ensure that essential terminology is clearly defined and used in context and that understanding is checked.
  • Reinforce underlying physical principles first rather than starting with formulae.

Use of Analogy and Illustration

  • Make sure illustrations draw on the experience and interest of girls as well as boys. (A shower curtain that seems to “cling” in the shower does count as a common experience; bending the path of a football does not.)
  • Be careful not to make excessive use of mechanistic illustrations, which may be outside the experience of girls.
  • Avoid being overcautious about the use of analogies; some mental picture is usually better than none.
  • Don’t assume that the basics do not need demonstrating through practical work.

Relevance

  • Try to give pupils a glimpse of the “big picture” by reinforcing links between topics, key ideas and applications wherever possible.
  • Try tackling first applications and then principles so that the rationale for studying a topic is clear throughout.
  • Supplement standard texts with other reading material, such as articles or newspaper cuttings, to introduce the social relevance of physics.
  • Use the Internet to introduce contemporary applications of physics.

References

Awesome Table. (2018). Awesome Table Advanced Summary Add On for Google Forms. Retrieved from Kristin Student Questionnaire about Science : https://awesome-table.com/-LAGK9gDHaCECYD7QRd2/view

Institute of Physics. (2006). Girls in the Physics Classroom: A Teachers' Guide for Action. London: Institute of Physics.

PISA. (2015). PISA 2015 Results (Volume 1). OECD.

PISA. (2015). Results in Focus. OECD.

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