Physics Education: Understanding the Barriers for Young Women in Ontario
In nearly all countries of the world, at every level of education, physics as a field of science is failing to recruit and retain women. This phenomenon is believed to relate to girls’ educational experiences from K-12, but the reasons for the gender gap in physics are not fully understood. The purpose of this phenomenological research is to explore and understand the barriers encountered by Ontario female high school students during their physics education and the meanings attributed to those barriers by these young women. This research is guided by social cognitive career theory (SCCT) and uses the concept of physics identity as a lens through which the influence of contextual barriers can be understood. Nine participants, selected via snowball sampling from an Eastern Ontario university, together participated in four semi-structured focus group meetings and individually participated in a single in-depth, one-on-one interview. Audio data was transcribed verbatim and analyzed using a general inductive approach. Emergent themes are descriptively presented as the findings of the research study: perceiving the high school physics experience, experiencing high school physics education, and identity and gender in the high school physics experience. Sub-themes presented include limited prior experiences, negative perceptions of physics, images of physics learners, decision-making, reactions to pedagogy, learning needs, physics identity, gender-dependent influences, and making meaning of the experiences in high school physics. The shared experience of high school physics education for young women is understood as both a richly challenging and rewarding experience. Based on the findings of this research, recommendations are made for practical and research settings, and for future work in this area. Drawing on literature on underrepresentation of women in physics, this research contributes to the physics education research community and beyond; it offers voices of Ontario female high school students, and an understanding of the barriers and the meanings associated with their experiences in high school physics.