17.46 Peeing contests: helping girls to study science

If you’re not a native English speaker, you may find it difficult to understand the title of this post. Peeing is a more polite way of saying the impolite word “pissing”; the words you will find in a dictionary are “urination” and “micturition”. What has this got to do with helping girls study science? I believe the answer is – almost nothing! But a recent article in an English education magazine, the TES (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) suggest that it has (https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/taking-pee-out-physics-how-boys-are-getting-a-leg).


The idea is that little boys play lots of games involving peeing that give them an advantage in understanding projectile motion which forms an early stage in conventional physics teaching. But little boys amuse themselves in lots of ways that give them experience of how the physical world works – running, climbing, throwing, playing in mud, playing with sticks and string, and so on. If my memory is correct I spent much more of my time doing things like this than I did in peeing. Little girls are often discouraged from spending their time in such activities

So why pick on peeing? It attracts attention! Fluid flow (posts 17.15 and 17.17) is not the same as the motion of a projectile, an object that is shot or thrown into the air. However, throwing stones or a ball gives you direct experience of the behaviour of projectiles.

What do the authors of the article suggest should be done to overcome this advantage that boys are supposed to have over girls? Thankfully, they don’t suggest that little girls should be encouraged to play peeing games! They believe that children should be introduced to physics through other topics, like the conservation of energy (post 16.21) that is conceptually much more important.

I agree with them that projectiles are not very important for understanding physics. The problem with learning about motion from the behaviour of projectiles is that the acceleration due to gravity is constant (posts 16.16 and 17.9). Children learn to solve problems about motion by memorising formulae that apply only to constant accelerations – this is a very unusual type of motion. But by the time many UK students go to University, they believe that they can use these formulae to solve any problem involving the motion of objects. Even more damaging, they believe that scientific problems are invariably solved by memorising formulae and putting numbers into them – without any real understanding of the principles. In other words, they have completely misunderstood what science is about (posts 17.9 and 17.33). It is possible to explain the principles of motion without ever mentioning projectiles (posts 16.2, 16.4, 16.9, 16.12, 16.13, 16.16, 16.19, 16.20, 16.21, 17.4, 17.19). Incidentally, I suspect that the obsession with projectiles may have started with the need to teach future military officers who would later be concerned with calculating the range of cannons; over a hundred years later the subject is still considered important! The study of projectiles is important for launching things into space – but then the acceleration due to gravity if not constant (post 17.27), so the methods children learn in schools won’t work!

However, you can’t start teaching science with any topic you might like. This is because science has a logical structure. The concept of energy comes from the concepts we use to describe motion (post 16.21). All of science works like this. You have to be able to understand about motion of objects before you can understand the basic concepts of electrical current (post 17.44 and 17.45). Imagine deciding to begin science teaching with photosynthesis (the process where plants absorb light to provide the energy to make glucose from carbon dioxide and water). It wouldn’t work because you have to understand something about molecules (post 16.30), chemical reactions (post 16.33) and energy (post 16.21) first. If we disrupt the logical structure of science, learning becomes a process of memorising random “facts” that is no use to anyone. Admittedly you don’t have to understand a lot about a topic in order to use it – science teaching is a process of “diminishing deception” (post 17.25).

So what is to be done to help girls study science? For a start let’s be clear that some girls do study physics, chemistry and engineering at university. I believe that in biology and medicine, girls outnumber boys. Some people believe that girls are less able than boys to perform tasks like spatial reasoning. My experience of teaching physics and engineering to female students suggests that this belief is false. Even if a difference did exist, it could simply be a result of upbrigning, as opposed to an intrinsic biological difference.

I think the answer is not to discourage little girls from playing whatever games they want. Many of them enjoy climbing (many women are excellent rock climbers) and throwing things – so let them! Indeed, I think that boys should also be encouraged to play whatever “pointless” games they want – it gives them real experience of how the physical world works. They can begin analysing their experiences (which is what science is about) once they have had the experiences to analyse! And boys and girls equally should be encouraged to make things and to cook, giving them more experience of how things work. A first-year university physics student once complained to me that I used the experience of using a spanner to explain the concept of torque (posts 17.10 and 17.37); he believed that it was unreasonable to expect him to have any experience of this kind. Why?

We can help children to understand science by encouraging them to observe and experience the world around them, not by distorting the nature of science.

(If you have read this to the end, I must admit that I have two grownup sons but no daughters.)


Related posts

17.33 Lord Kelvin and flying machines
17.9 Scientists believe that…
16.41 Physics, chemistry and biology
16.15 Science education


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