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April 2017 Archives

....is about 2 cm long and lives behind the heat pump unit in the courtyard outside.

She's been out every evening since we got here. Can anyone identify her? She doesn't appear to feature on Western Australia's most deadly list (which, incidently, includes the white tail).  I've left it till after we've left to post this just in case someone tells me she's deadly. Ignorance is bliss..

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The Institute of Physics has just released a report on recent interventions designed to improve the uptake of physics at 'A'-level by girls*.

Although there have been considerable efforts in the UK to improve the gender balance over two decades, there has not been any substantial change - about 20% of a typical A-level physics class is female. Why is this.

In the latest study, three different methods were trialled. While they all had modest impact on their own, a much greater effect was observed when all three methods were used together.

You can read the details in the report, but briefly, the three approaches were as follows:

1. Developing girls' confidence and resilience. Previous research had found that boys often consider their own successes as being down to their own hard work and skill, whereas their failures were down to some external influence (it wasn't MY fault I did badly...). Girls, however tend to do the opposite - they see success as down to something outside their control and failure a result of their own lack of ability. This strand helped address this - for example girls were given the opportunity to go into primary schools and help with science lessons and to tackle real science projects in industry. In short, create the understanding that "Yes, I can do physics".

2. Working with physics teachers in the classroom. There are many things that go on in the physics classroom to create bias towards boys. Just skim through a typical physics textbook and you'll see many of them - photos of famous and not-so-famous physicists - nearly all of them male. Examples of physics taken from football, snooker, cricket and other male-dominated sports. Boys often dominate classroom discussions. Often teachers can show unconsious bias in their physics teaching towards boys. In this strand the researchers worked with the teachers so that they could see biases and correct them. 

3. A whole-school approach tackling gender stereotypes. Previous work had shown that the type of school made a big impact on girls' uptake of physics at A-level. This approach worked with the schools on equity policies (and how they played out), engaging with both staff and students, including networking and careers events and talking with groups about big issues such as domestic violence.

All three approaches were a little bit successful on their own. However, by far the biggest impact was at the six schools where all three were used simultaneously. Here, the uptake of A and AS-level physics by girls went from 16 students (in 2014) to 52 (in 2016).

This work was not without challenge, however, The report also concluded that it was absolutely important to get buy-in from senior-leadership within the school. Without that, room for improvement was limited. There are many reccomendations (you can read them yourself), but the overall message I interpret as this:

Yes, the gender imbalance can be improved. That has been demonstrated. But we will not achieve this across the board without substantial effort across the whole physics and teaching community.

 

*I use the words 'girls' and 'boys' here since these are the same words used by the Institute of Physics to describe females and males under the age of 18. I apologise in advance if readers believe that 'women' and 'men' would be better words here.

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Only a week more to go in Perth. Time here has gone so quickly. It's then off to UK for Easter to see my family before returning to Waikato.

On Saturday we had a tour of the bell tower on the waterfront. It's a great looking structure (in my opinion) - and houses the original peal of bells cast for St Martin-in-the-Fields in London. Just how they came to Perth is a bit of a long story, but they had to be removed from St Martin's because they were too heavy and were causing serious structural damage to the tower. Now they have a new home, along with a great many other bells. Collectively they are called 'The Swan Bells' - in Perth naming something is easy - just put 'Swan' in front of whatever it is.

We had a go at bell-ringing. Not the St Martin's bells, but some others. You've probably seen bell ringing on television - people energentically pulling down on ropes and letting them go - as the bells swing back and forth. We didn't get to that stage. We just swung them gently and got them ringing.

The experience was a quick tutorial in inertia and resonance. First of all, to get a bell swinging takes some force. Pulling the rope creates a torque on the bell, but a large bell doesn't accelerate very quickly. One has to be patient. Once it is swinging a little, by pulling at the right time one can add to the amplitude of the oscillation. That's resonance - applying a driving force at the right frequency. 

But a gently-swinging bell doesn't sound. The reason is that the clapper is moving with the bell. To get it to sound, we need to get the clapper to hit the bell. The way to do that is to stop the bell and let the clapper keep swinging. Now, that's hard work. This time we had to pull down on the rope before the bell reached its maximum displacement (i.e. as the rope was still going upwards). It did feel rather like I was going to be heading up with the rope towards the ceiling, but it didn't happen. But it took some force to bring the bell to a sudden stop and cause the clapper to run into it.

The final bit of physics was apparent on listening for my bell ringing. It wasn't easy to pick out which bell was mine from among the other five or so bells ringing at the same time, because I heard the sound a short time after tugging the rope to stop the bell. That I think  was mostly down to the time taken for the clapper to run into the bell once the bell has stopped. There would also have been a short delay for the sound to travel from the bell to the bell ringer several metres away, but I suspect over that distance it would have been barely perceptible.

Some bellringers can keep going for three hours at a time - and make sure their bell sounds in the correct, constantly changing sequence too. That must be some impressive feat of physical and mental endurance.  Finally, a photo (that I took a few weeks ago) of the Swan Bells in action - at the hands of the experts.

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