Social, creative – that’s physics!

Physics seems to have an image problem. According to BBC News, the physics department at Reading University is set to become the 21st physics school to have closed or merged over the last 10 years in the UK. But now Ursula Kessels and colleagues at the Freie Universität in Berlin have shown that some students’ attitudes towards physics are easily improved – they need only to be shown the social and creative side of the subject.

The researchers first tested the implicit attitudes of 63 sixth-form pupils towards physics and English. As expected, compared with English, the pupils associated physics far more quickly with masculinity, difficulty, and as offering few opportunities for self-expression.

However, in a second experiment, the researchers showed a simple intervention could improve these negative attitudes.

Seventy-one psychology undergrads were given one of two passages of text to read before completing a test of their implicit attitudes towards physics. As expected, those students who read a passage of text from a physics textbook, went on to associate physics more easily with negative words and lack of self-expression than they did with positive words and creativity. This was true even if they’d studied physics at sixth form.

However, other students were given a passage of text to read written by the philosopher Thomas Kuhn that emphasised the importance of dialogue and creativity in scientific activity. Among these students, the tendency to associate physics with negativity and lack of self-expression was greatly reduced – but only if they had studied physics at sixth form. Unfortunately, the text by Kuhn couldn’t shift the attitudes of those students who had dropped school physics at the earliest opportunity.

The researchers said their findings were encouraging and showed the “stereotypic views of the school subject physics are not immutable”.
Kessels, U., Rau, M. & Hannover, B. (2006). What goes well with physics? Measuring and altering the image of science. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 761-780.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to what happened when BBC2 Newsnight’s culture correspondent went to physics class.