Novel ideas that attempt to explain one or another gender difference often invite befuddled reactions as well as controversy. The latest case in point: three Australian researchers have claimed that boys have an advantage over girls when it comes to physics partly because they pee standing up.
In a recent article published in TES (a UK weekly that was formerly the Times Educational Supplement), titled "Taking the pee out of physics: how boys are getting a leg up," the authors hypothesize that “playful urination” practices allow boys to comprehend projectile motion more easily than girls. This is worth noting, they say, because most physics curricula begin with the concept of projectile motion.
Authors Anna Wilson, Kate Wilson, and David Low, who all have advanced degrees in physics, realize that many people may think they’re pulling our legs or “taking the piss,” to use a totally appropriate British idiom, but they are quite serious. They have not based this particular idea on data or research thus far, as it would be nearly impossible to do, but feel strongly that the gender achievement gap in physics and related fields like engineering must be closed.
“We have lots of data on the gender gap on physics assessment, eight years’ worth and more than 7,000 students, where we also highlighted the projectile motion problem,” Dr. Kate Wilson told Seeker via email. “It’s a newspaper article in TES, not a scholarly paper, and we didn't think readers would want to see a whole lot of graphs and statistics.”
Wilson points out that the only new idea presented in the TES story is the urination hypothesis.
“It was one of those ideas that we came up with, thought it was funny, but the more we thought about it, the more it made sense,” Wilson said. “And the more we talked to (male) colleagues, the more convinced we became that there might be something in it.”
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In addressing the achievement gap in physics, the authors recognize there are many other factors at play but believe the urination hypothesis is a good way to draw attention to the issue.
“If you look in the academic literature, you'll find ball sports as the usual reason given,” Wilson said, referring to the idea that boys have an advantage with physics owing to the games they play. “Urination has got to be as important as that, given the frequency and universality,” she went on. “And it got your attention, didn't it? More so than saying girls don't play enough sports would have.”
The article suggests that the way boys are trained to urinate in the toilet, by aiming for a floating target for example, as well as playing games with their urine like “Peeball,” in which men try to destroy a ball in a urinal using only the force of their pee (a game meant for prostate cancer awareness that reportedly gained popularity), could be a contributing factor in the lack of women represented in physics.
“Like many parents of small (and not-so-small) boys, two of us (Kate Wilson and David Low) have observed the great delight young males take in urination, a process by which they produce and direct a visible projectile arc,” the authors wrote in the article. Essentially, every time a boy urinates, he is increasing his mastery of projectile motion.
“All this [playful urination] is experienced up to five times a day,” they said, “so by 14, boys have had the opportunity to play with projectile motion around 10,000 times.”
The age of 14 is significant because this is when many children are introduced to formal physics, and projectile motion is one of the very first things they learn. There isn’t an easy way to supplement the exploration of projectile motion for girls that boys have when they play with pee, the authors explain. Rather, their solution lies in the way that physics is typically taught.
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“We could give girls a better understanding of projectile motion, when and if they need it, by using well-designed teaching activities,” Wilson said. “But I don't see why we should be putting projectile motion so early in the curriculum anyway.… It's just not that important.”
Wilson explained that some teachers (usually male) think that using examples from sports in their lessons will make physics more exciting for students. It often does, but usually more for boys than girls.
“It’s just not that interesting to many girls, and not actually important anyway, so why do it?” Wilson commented. “I'd rather see girls encouraged to get out in the shed, build things, pull things apart and learn how to use tools, than learn projectile motion,” she added. “That would make them better engineers and physicists.”
Since the article was published, it has elicited confusion among readers and received much criticism, as the authors anticipated.
“Clearly these are indoor types,” one online commenter on a Telegraph article about the story noted. “Any girl who has been outdoors without the benefit of a directional hose has to make far more complicated calculations — angle and camber of ground, wind direction and speed etc. in order to avoid fouling ones [sic] own leg and shoes.”
Wilson stressed that while she and her co-authors are making an earnest point, they aren’t saying boys are better at physics than girls.
“We are saying that boys have an advantage in physics, for many reasons,” she said, including cultural ones. “Assessment and curriculum sequencing is part of the problem.”
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