REAL LIVES: DEBATE

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Physics teachers will have to glam up if they want more schoolgirls to take up the subject - so said lecturer Averil Macdonald last week. Get real, says Pat Hall. If you teach your subject properly, there's no need for such stunts

AVERIL MACDONALD

If a picture says 1,000 words then, in this media-driven age, image tells the whole story. Driving a flash car and wearing glam clothes really is the best way for physics teachers to show their students that physics is a high-power subject of high-achievers driving us into the next millennium.

We live in an image-hungry society. We are bombarded by visual input. We have learned to take in vast amounts of information in the blink of an eye and form judgments and opinions in the following split second. How often are we reminded of the power of first impressions? Yet sadly this visual revolution seems to have passed scientists by - even though it's entirely physics- based inventions which allowed it to happen. Without physics there would have been no photography, television, video, satellite or cable communication, Internet or virtual reality. There'd be no advertising.

Yet to scientists it's faintly vulgar to link science and advertising. They typically believe that science will attract students, funding and public appreciation by virtue of its inherent worth, but that's not true.

We're desperately short of people who have a scientific background and we need such people in all walks of life, from law to government, from finance and management to journalism. In our highly technological society, it's essential that decision-makers understand the basics of the science they're dealing with. Women are particularly under-represented and this means we're wasting the talent of half the population.

Girls today are encouraged to believe in themselves, to strive for success in this technological society and to seek careers with high levels of job satisfaction. But, in the minds of these young people, if society values your contribution, it rewards you accordingly. Managers, doctors and lawyers all clearly reap benefits but science is seen as dowdy and stuck in the doldrums. The only scientists most people see are their teachers or those interviewed briefly during some crisis, chosen to conform to the stereotypical image of the mad professor or the trustworthy boffin.

Physics teachers are our best hope in changing this image. This is why I said to the Institute of Physics Annual Congress last week that physics teachers should be given a high prestige company car and a clothes allowance.

Early in my teaching career I made a conscious decision to reinvent myself. I started wearing Dynasty-style power suits (this was the mid-Eighties) with shoulder pads, tight skirts and high heels. I also slapped on plenty of make-up, made my hair big and bought a BMW. It was an immense success: in a mixed comprehensive school I typically had five times the national average number of students going on to study physics at degree level and as many girls as boys in an A-level class.

We wouldn't expect our girls to conform to the stereotype of the dowdy scientist so we must make it plain that teachers don't fit it either. Being modern, powerful and glamorous is a far more striking image - and one which aspiring scientists can relate to with more enthusiasm. So let's do it.

Averil Macdonald is a

physics lecturer and educational consultant.

PAT

HALL

It appears that the physicist's stalwart E = mc2 should be revamped to U = ms2 - where U is the uptake of girls doing physics, in units of girls, kilogirls or Megagirls; m is the money (salary) in pounds, kilopounds or Megapounds and s is teacher-sexiness in units to be decided. There is no doubt that numbers of girls opting to study physics is decreasing and one does need to consider why this is so and think about how to address the problem. To remedy this, the suggestion is that, if physics teachers don platform sandals, hitch up our skirts, to crotch level if we dare, and wear our designer shades as we deliver our words of wisdom, our lessons will have the same impact as the Sermon on the Mount. The hordes, in other words, will flock to absorb our wisdom, and sign on in the certainty of gaining high rewards.

Good teachers are unfortunately a rare breed. People who can combine scholarly rigour, a robust sense of humour, an inspirational delivery coupled with the ability to persuade pupils (hopefully more than a few per class) to put in the time and effort necessary to gain the required grades are not exactly thick on the ground. To be effective, a teacher must use methods with which he or she feels comfortable. Personalities vary greatly but, by being true to oneself, one gains the respect of one's pupils. Succumbing to trendy gimmicks can simply turn more pupils off.

It is easier to be inspiring, interesting and instructive if the curriculum lends itself to effective teacher input. The past decade has seen much tarting up and titivating of the science curriculum but there has been no real fundamental change in the core content. Pupils still do not perceive our great scientists in the same way as great writers. They do not always relate what they study in the lab as relevant to them and their lives. Girls want to see science relate to people, to situations and they want to use it to help society. Physics teachers who ignore this will not reverse the trend. Maybe this should be food for thought for the curriculum mandarins

The availability of satisfying jobs with high status with commensurate salaries (not necessarily to be spent on Porsches) is important and will serve to increase uptake. However, research budgets, academic departments, industrial and government research facilities are all targets for cuts, thus reducing the number of such high-profile jobs. Images of mad scientists abound and maybe we, as physicists, should take it upon ourselves to do something about this. In the long run, ultra-trendy teachers bursting with sex appeal are fine sometimes. But, unless they metamorphose as they mature, they will surely perpetuate the "mad" image.

Physics is the most fundamental science and, if taught effectively by people who can communicate effectively, then the punters will come in But it must be remembered, punters are canny, they soon sense false images or patronising behaviour and this can be a big turn off.

Pat Hall is a physics teacher and head of science at Bolton School, Girls' Division.

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