Drop the Physics Requirement to Encourage More Women Engineers?

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ZapperZ
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OK, first of all, I am not quite certain where this topic should go. It does deal with academic guidelines and requirements, but it isn't really a "guidance" for students. So I was half tempted to post this in the General Discussion forum, but at the last minute, decided to post it in Academic Guidance. The Mentors are free to move it to where ever they think is more appropriate.

Secondly, I'm posting this to get the opinion of members here who are more familiar with the UK higher-education system and can provide a more informed opinion on this matter.

Finally, we have many engineers here, from from the UK and outside of the UK. So you people have an intimate knowledge of what is involved in obtaining a degree in engineering.

I'm reading this incredulous article where the new president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (which, I presume, is in the UK) is calling for universities in the UK to drop the requirement for Physics A-Level to encourage more women to enter the field of engineering. Her argument was that due to the "... initial male bias in physics lessons...", women are less inclined to take physics at the A-Level and thus, will not be able to pursue an engineering degree when they go to college.

So my jaw dropped when I read this.

I'm actually quite surprised by a number of things:

1. If your arm hurts, then you should just cut it off. So if physics really is too difficult, then it shouldn't be a requirement or one shouldn't take it. Somehow, the question on whether it is actually NEEDED or useful was never discussed. This means that it is OK to "dumb down" something if it is just to tough to get through.

2. Why was it required in the first place? Has the criteria changed so much that A-Level physics can be bypassed for prospective engineering majors in the UK? Most, if not all, of engineering majors in US institutions are required to take at least a year of intro physics. Heck, even those majoring in Engineering Technology have to take physics. Do UK engineering undergraduates have the same requirement? If they do, wouldn't not having A-Level physics be a disadvantage?

3. It is my strong belief that one can definitely understand something even more if one sees it multiple times. Education leading up to A-Level physics exam provides an important introduction to many advanced concepts such as "force", "energy", "conservation laws", etc... etc. Encountering such concepts for the very first time in an engineering course in college is not the most ideal situation. This is similar to trying to learn the math at the same time one is tackling a physical problem. Sure, it can be done, but boy, is it a daunting task! So if we are expecting these women to skip A-Level physics and go straight into engineering courses in a university, aren't we putting them at a tremendous disadvantage over those who already had a background in physics?

4. Finally, if I were woman thinking of being an engineer, I'd find this to be rather insulting to my intelligence. It feels as if the standards are being LOWERED just so I could get in, as if I do not have the ability to compete with other men. If there is a true, inherent bias in physics education at that level, then ADDRESS THAT and correct it there! Don't just cut off your arm. Instead, figure out what is causing it to hurt and treat that!

I'd like to hear from those of you who went through the UK engineering curriculum, or are very familiar with it.

Zz.
 
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  • #2
phinds
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I'm reading this incredulous article ...
I'd lose my nitpicker status if I didn't point out that you mean "incredible" (unless of course you actually do mean that the article doesn't believe itself :smile:)
 
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  • #3
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Her argument was that due to the "... initial male bias in physics lessons...", women are less inclined to take physics at the A-Level and thus, will not be able to pursue an engineering degree when they go to college.
A specious argument, IMO.
 
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  • #4
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I like the way it is dealt with in Snooker: there are no women among the top players in the world but neither is there any rule that excludes them to achieve such a position. A structural engineer once told me he had the following dialog at the opening ceremony of a new building:

Him (to one of the notabilities): "What you're doing in the back here? Shouldn't you be on stage?"
The notability: "Well, during on opening ceremony like this I prefer to stand next to the structural engineer!"

I think that sums it up. To lower any standards cannot be the solution. Instead we should ask what happens between the age of 8 and 18.
 
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  • #5
Bandersnatch
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I'm neither an engineer, nor from the UK. I lived there for a few years, so I'm somewhat familiar with the education system, for what it's worth. But I don't think that's all that much pertinent to your questions, as they seem be just about your reading of the article.

1. If your arm hurts, then you should just cut it off. So if physics really is too difficult, then it shouldn't be a requirement or one shouldn't take it. Somehow, the question on whether it is actually NEEDED or useful was never discussed. This means that it is OK to "dumb down" something if it is just to tough to get through.
There is nothing in there about dumbing anything down or physics being too difficult. It is explicitly stated that the reason (they suspect) for girls not taking the classes is self-image and peer approval which, at the age when kids have to decide what A-levels to take, skewes the gender statistics in favour of boys.
By the time of the uni admissions, peer pressume might be less of an issue, so more girls would want to appy, but are shut off by the decision they made earlier.
If you remove the A-levels requirement, then it does not compromise the uni educational level. It'll allow people who otherwise could not apply to give it a go. Whether they survive or not is then up to them.
If an educational institution is intended on admitting only those applicants with sufficient bacground, then they are in the right to instate an admission exam.

So if we are expecting these women to skip A-Level physics and go straight into engineering courses in a university, aren't we putting them at a tremendous disadvantage over those who already had a background in physics?
Again, this is not about somehow 'making' women go into those courses without relevant A-levels. It's about allowing those without them to at least have a chance.
Yes, it does put everyone who hasn't had A-levels physics at a disadvantage. But you still end up with more applicants and successful engineers (of both genders) than if you kept the requirement.

4. Finally, if I were woman thinking of being an engineer, I'd find this to be rather insulting to my intelligence. It feels as if the standards are being LOWERED just so I could get in, as if I do not have the ability to compete with other men. If there is a true, inherent bias in physics education at that level, then ADDRESS THAT and correct it there! Don't just cut off your arm. Instead, figure out what is causing it to hurt and treat that!
But it doesn't have to do with skill or intelligence. The issue is about a decision one makes when they're an impressionable kid.


Perhaps the issue is with the OP misunderstanding the A-levels requirement - it's not just about taking the exam. To take the exam one needs to take a 2-year course. So if they change their minds by the time of uni admissions, they'd have to spend another two years taking relevant courses and then sitting the exams before being allowed to apply.
The propositions can be rephrased as: let's remove the 2-year course requirement (the exam being relegated to either admissions procedure or just the overal survivablitiy in the course of education).
 
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  • #6
ZapperZ
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I'm neither an engineer, nor from the UK. I lived there for a few years, so I'm somewhat familiar with the education system, for what it's worth. But I don't think that's all that much pertinent to your questions, as they seem be just about your reading of the article.


There is nothing in there about dumbing anything down or physics being too difficult. It is explicitly stated that the reason (they suspect) for girls not taking the classes is self-image and peer approval which, at the age when kids have to decide what A-levels to take, skewes the gender statistics in favour of boys.
By the time of the uni admissions, peer pressume might be less of an issue, so more girls would want to appy, but are shut off by the decision they made earlier.
If you remove the A-levels requirement, then it does not compromise the uni educational level. It'll allow people who otherwise could not apply to give it a go. Whether they survive or not is then up to them.
But if this is the case, then don't make A-level physics as a requirement for an engineering degree. Since it has been a requirement for many UK institutions, then there must be something to it. If not, then these universities should remove it now.

Perhaps the issue is with the OP misunderstanding the A-levels requirement - it's not just about taking the exam. To take the exam one needs to take a 2-year course. So if they change their minds by the time of uni admissions, they'd have to spend another two years taking relevant courses and then sitting the exams before being allowed to apply.
I grew up with the UK-type system until I did my university education in the US. And not only that, I spent two years teaching A-Level physics. So no, this issue is not due to a "misunderstanding" of the A-level system or requirements.

Zz.
 
  • #7
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I agree why drop A-Level physics as a requirement which would be a huge necessity for going into a field like engineering, maybe if they aren't smart enough to go through A-Level physics they shouldn't be going into engineering.
 
  • #8
Bandersnatch
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I grew up with the UK-type system until I did my university education in the US. And not only that, I spent two years teaching A-Level physics. So no, this issue is not due to a "misunderstanding" of the A-level system or requirements.
Good. My comment was well intentioned and not meant to put you down.
 
  • #9
phinds
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A specious argument, IMO.
Mark, I'm not so sure of that. I think peer pressure today is, if anything, worse that it was decades ago because of social media. On the other hand women don't in general, I think, feel that they are not empowered they way men are. Still, it sounds believable to me that peer pressure at the high school level could be a factor.
 
  • #10
Why do not you encourage women to work in coal mines?
Feminists only fight for women in positions of power and with lots of money, obviously they will never fight for equality where no one has power or makes little money.
 
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  • #11
ZapperZ
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Why do not you encourage women to work in coal mines?
Feminists only fight for women in positions of power and with lots of money, obviously they will never fight for equality where no one has power or makes little money.
This is a very faulty view, and frankly, does not conform to the PF standards. Women fought to work in factories, in the frontlines of military battles, etc...etc. So to claim that they only want to work in position of power is false.

It is also off-topic to this thread. I asked about the appropriateness of removing the requirement of A-Level physics for acceptance into UK educational institutions.

Zz.
 
  • #12
phinds
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Why do not you encourage women to work in coal mines?
Feminists only fight for women in positions of power and with lots of money, obviously they will never fight for equality where no one has power or makes little money.
That's disgusting and as ZZ said, it's not in keeping w/ PF standards.
 
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There are schools in the US experimenting with separate math and science classes for boys and girls and they've had success. In fact, the performance of both groups improves without the distractions and social pressure. I'm not by any means an expert on the topic but my daughter is. It's generally understood that student performance improves when students are in a class with other people like themselves, others of the same ability, same gender, etc.
 
  • #14
phinds
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There are schools in the US experimenting with separate math and science classes for boys and girls and they've had success. In fact, the performance of both groups improves without the distractions and social pressure. I'm not by any means an expert on the topic but my daughter is. It's generally understood that student performance improves when students are in a class with other people like themselves, others of the same ability, same gender, etc.
Yes. I can't give citations but I have read (probably in Time Magazine, possibly in The Economist) of such trials and that they work well for all involved for the reasons you stated. That's part of the reason why I said what I said in post #9.
 
  • #15
ZapperZ
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There are schools in the US experimenting with separate math and science classes for boys and girls and they've had success. In fact, the performance of both groups improves without the distractions and social pressure. I'm not by any means an expert on the topic but my daughter is. It's generally understood that student performance improves when students are in a class with other people like themselves, others of the same ability, same gender, etc.
But this "conclusion" is obviously falsified by the fact that many international students do well in US colleges. They are very much unlike the rest of the student population, and a minority in many of the classes they took. So how come they can do very well?

Again, this thread is not, NOT about gender equality or education. It is about one very specific topic. How come it is so difficult to stay on topic here?

Zz.
 
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Again, this thread is not, NOT about gender equality or education. It is about one very specific topic. How come it is so difficult to stay on topic here?
This is precisely the topic of the article that you, yourself, began the thread with. Seems that you didn't understand what the article was about.

But this "conclusion" is obviously falsified by the fact that many international students do well in US colleges. They are very much unlike the rest of the student population, and a minority in many of the classes they took. So how come they can do very well?
Not sure what you're talking about. Again, I think you didn't understand the article. It is about the reasons that more girls don't take physics in high school and the author of that article is correctly ascribing some of that reluctance to peer pressure.
 
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  • #17
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This is precisely the topic of the article that you, yourself, began the thread with. Seems that you didn't understand what the article was about.



Not sure what you're talking about. Again, I think you didn't understand the article. It is about the reasons that more girls don't take physics in high school and the author of that article is correctly ascribing some of that reluctance to peer pressure.
I started this thread not to discuss a specific part of the link, NOT the entire link. In particular, I wanted to know if a undergraduate curriculum in the UK can accommodate someone without A-Level physics, and if a student without such a background will be at a severe disadvantage. That is why I clearly stated in the very beginning that I wanted to hear from UK engineers. Otherwise, why would I make such a request?

If we want to talk about why more girls don't take physics in high school, then let's start another topic, or better yet, continue in the existing ones. But this is NOT the premise of this thread which I've defined in the very first post!

Zz.
 
  • #18
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You made it the premise.
If your arm hurts, then you should just cut it off. So if physics really is too difficult, then it shouldn't be a requirement or one shouldn't take it. Somehow, the question on whether it is actually NEEDED or useful was never discussed. This means that it is OK to "dumb down" something if it is just to tough to get through.
Your assumption that she was asserting that it's difficult or she wants to dumb something down was extremely offensive and not at all the point of the article. If your only question was whether it is necessary you shouldn't have begun your post with that assumption. I assume you don't have teenage daughters. Is it necessary? Probably not, students change their mind once they've reached college and frequently do quite well in something they had no intention of studying. Is it useful? Probably, which is why she wants to encourage more women to pursue engineering who may be well qualified but don't pursue it for reasons that have nothing to do with their interests or abilities. I don't necessarily agree with her approach which is why I offered an alternative that has shown promise.
 
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  • #19
Choppy
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In response to the initial post, it seems at least on the surface of it, that dropping the requirement for Physics A-Levels for entry into university engineering programs has a lot of potential to do more harm than good.

I'm not extremely familiar with the UK system, but it would seem that someone starting a university engineering program without having taken high school physics would be at a significant disadvantage compared to her other classmates from the first day of class. This 'solution' might encourage and even result in more female enrollment, but at what consequence? If all those extra students who enroll initially later drop out because they don't have the background they need to be successful, then all this would accomplish is a waste a lot of peoples' time and money. Even worse, it could lead to a secondary effect where students who would have otherwise stuck through it would be exposed to a much more common scenario of colleagues dropping out and potentially drop out themselves. Not to mention all those coming through (not just the female students) who avoided taking physics during their A-levels would likely feel set up for failure.

I do take it with a grain of salt though. It could be something that's simply out forth to generate discussion and any actual implementation might come with a requirement to complete remedial introductory coursework.
 
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  • #20
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First let me say, I'm from the US and I don't know anything about the UK system.

But, I have a bachelors in physics, and I did that with little physics in high school, certainly not 2 years worth. Do you think students should be disqualified from studying physics if they didn't already study it in high school? If not, why would you disqualify them from studying engineering? What about other subjects? Must one have taken French in high school, to study French Lit at University?

Seems like they could make physics a requirement for getting the engineering degree, without requiring that the physics have been done in high school. The kids that did take it in high school just have a head start, that's all.
 
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  • #21
ZapperZ
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First let me say, I'm from the US and I don't know anything about the UK system.

But, I have a bachelors in physics, and I did that with little physics in high school, certainly not 2 years worth. Do you think students should be disqualified from studying physics if they didn't already study it in high school? If not, why would you disqualify them from studying engineering? What about other subjects? Must one have taken French in high school, to study French Lit at University?

Seems like they could make physics a requirement for getting the engineering degree, without requiring that the physics have been done in high school. The kids that did take it in high school just have a head start, that's all.
You need to understand what "A-level" exams are. They are basically, and to put it naively, exams that you take to be able to enter UK universities (and many other universities that adopt a similar system and standard). Students normally study for about 2 years on typically 3 different subject areas, and these subject areas often are either subjects that the universities often either require or recommend for admission into various majors.

The problem here isn't just whether it is required or not. The problem here is that if you have 2 candidates with almost equal exam results (and trust me, this can happen more often than not), but one has taken the physics paper while the other didn't, which one would you consider to have a better chance of doing well in an engineering program? So whether it is required or not, an admission officer can't help but give the advantage to the candidate that has done physics, because at the A-Level, physics is as close to evaluating a student's "engineering capability" than any other subjects, even the so-called "applied mathematics".

I think people forget that one is competing with other candidates for a limited number of places. One is not being evaluated in vacuum.

Zz.
 
  • #22
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You need to understand what "A-level" exams are...
Interesting. This is quite different from my experience in the US system when I was an undergraduate (> 40 years ago). Back then and there, freshmen were not really expected to know what their major would be. I have a better understanding now of why your OP tried to direct the question to those intimately familiar with the UK system. I will just listen to this thread from now on...
 
  • #23
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I wanted to know if a undergraduate curriculum in the UK can accommodate someone without A-Level physics, and if a student without such a background will be at a severe disadvantage.
Many British Universities offer engineering courses for BEng or BSc with an extra year of study for entrants that don't have suitable A levels for direct entry to the standard length course . The extra year is sometimes called a foundation year .

The extra year is used to bring entrants up to the required standard in maths , applied maths and physics . Generally the teaching has an engineering bias so some subjects like basic fluid mechanics and computer aided design are also usually included .

The base requirement for direct entry to BEng or BSc courses in engineering is usually two good A levels in any of Pure Maths/Applied Maths/Physics .
 
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  • #24
Bandersnatch
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The problem here isn't just whether it is required or not. The problem here is that if you have 2 candidates with almost equal exam results (and trust me, this can happen more often than not), but one has taken the physics paper while the other didn't, which one would you consider to have a better chance of doing well in an engineering program? So whether it is required or not, an admission officer can't help but give the advantage to the candidate that has done physics, because at the A-Level, physics is as close to evaluating a student's "engineering capability" than any other subjects, even the so-called "applied mathematics".
But the choice here is between the situation you've described, and having just one candidate because the other one is a priori not admissible regardless of ability or drive.
Remember that one of the rationale for the proposed move (as per the article) is to encourage more kids to go into engineering, to satisfy long-prevalent STEM skill shortage on the market. There is no problem with too much competition for university admissions, rather there's not enough candidates.
And even if competition was fierce, I don't understand how removing the requirement is more harmful to the prospective applicants than outright barring some of them with no recourse.
 
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  • #25
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Many British Universities offer engineering courses for BEng or BSc with an extra year of study for entrants that don't have suitable A levels for direct entry to the standard length course . The extra year is sometimes called a foundation year .

The extra year is used to bring entrants up to the required standard in maths , applied maths and physics . Generally the teaching has an engineering bias so some subjects like basic fluid mechanics and computer aided design are also usually included .

The base requirement for direct entry to BEng or BSc courses in engineering is usually two good A levels in any of Pure Maths/Applied Maths/Physics .
Thank you for the information.

When I was teaching A-Levels many years ago, all of our students who intended to go for engineering majors all sat for Pure/Applied/Physics combination. Those who wanted to do physics did the same combination, although one student opted for Chemistry instead of applied. Not sure if she got in.

But it seems that whether students did physics at the A-levels or not, he/she will encounter physics at the university level, no matter what. And this is what I think is the advantage of having seen and done physics already at the A-level.

Zz.
 
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