Increasing the number of physicists: breaking the vicious circle

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Peter Main
Institute of Physics, UK
Forum 2014 Helsinki
WG1 : Inspiring the young

Most countries in the developed world are reporting shortages in the number of graduates in the physical sciences and engineering, which they see as a serious problem for future growth. In particular, there have been many initiatives to increase the proportion of girls studying physics and engineering but, despite these efforts, the ratio has remained depressingly low. The shortage of graduates with a physics background means that there are fewer of them that enter teaching, which in turn means that students are not taught be experts and are not enthused to continue with the subject. This vicious circle has proved very resistant to change. In this talk, I shall concentrate on measures taken to increase the numbers of physics students in England. Essential to the process is an understanding of the issues and I shall describe the results of a number of research projects and reports undertaken by social scientists and the Institute of Physics looking into the reasons why students, particularly girls do not choose physics. These results indicate that most of the initiatives to date are likely to have been ineffective and some made have made the situation worse; for example, no intervention to increase the number of girls is likely to succeed unless the effects of gender identity and stereotyping are taken into account. The measures I shall describe will include supporting non-specialist teachers, via the Institutes Stimulating Physics Network, increasing the number of specialist teachers, and specific projects to increase the number of girls taking physics. All measures are evidence based and undertaken in partnership with government, which has provided significant funding. The merits of these measures relative to more traditional approaches will be discussed.