The theoretical physicist is of the firm belief that women can and do thrive in the world of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and that more must be done to retain students studying in the field.
“Many females could have a career in physics, but they are dropping out,” she says. “There is a leaky pipeline, and we need to intervene to stop that."
According to the Global Gender Gap Index 2020, the proportion of females to males in Australian STEM education is 0.35 (35%). A more than 31% global gender gap also exists in the STEM workforce.
At university level, the gender gap is even larger with only 28% of the 2020 STEM teaching and research workforce comprising women.
Prof Parappilly has dedicated many hours in addition to her normal university teaching and research to reversing attitudes towards STEM and driving enrolments in STEM subjects at both school and university.
Completing her PhD in theoretical physics in 2006, Prof Parappilly could have continued down the path of particle physics research but instead ventured into physics education.
She wanted to make a positive difference in the lives of students who, like her, strived for a future in STEM.
Prof Parappilly's passion for physics education also stemmed from a clear gender imbalance occurring in STEM lecture theatres across the country.
“We need to balance that, and we can do that with physics education research and teaching students in a way that they don’t drop out from the topic, and that's why I changed by area of research to physics education."
Prof Parappilly founded Flinders University’s STEM Women Branching Out, a first of its kind group in SA that supports women with their choice of researching and teaching in STEM.
The group offers programs, events and resources for women at university and high school to encourage them to remain engaged in their studies and make STEM more inclusive.
An initial event for the group in 2015 attracted 16 students and within less than a year this grew to 405.
A few years later in 2018 Prof Parappilly led the Flinders STEM Enrichment Academic Program in her role as the Director and Lead CI. She set out to engage Year 9 girls in STEM at a critical time in their schooling before they closed off their options in senior years.
The goal was to engage 140 students in the federally funded program, but that number has since increased dramatically to 531 Year 9 girls and 85 teachers, far surpassing the original target.
“We made a real difference in these young girls’ lives, and we reversed their attitudes of STEM in a positive way,” she says.
“As a result, 93% of the girls who attended our 2019 STEM Enrichment Academy are now pursuing STEM subjects in Year 11. That’s a fantastic achievement.”
One of her most successful and recognised teaching innovations is an approach using LEGO racing cars to teach the fundamentals of science to an introductory physics course at Flinders that was experiencing high dropout rates.
Students from Glenunga International High School and Mount Compass Area School with the LEGO racing cars.
The approach outlined in the American Journal of Physics, has significantly slowed student attrition rates for the topic year-on-year.
The tailored activities involving the LEGO cars helps students grasp theoretical concepts such as measurement error and variability and improve their lab reporting skills, engagement, and confidence.
This method has since been expanded into engineering courses as, reaching a cohort of more than 200 Flinders students.
Prof Parappilly says that many students enrol in first-year introductory physics without basic science skills or prior exposure to physics or mathematics at high school.
To help improve students' learning in their first year of university, she developed an Australian-first flipped model of team based learning (TBL) in physics. The model fuses important elements of the Just in Time Teaching (JiTT) strategy with TBL practices.
Results have found that this model of learning improves student outcomes including better student engagement, learning and understanding. Working in mixed ability groups can also promote learning gains for low potential students.
Prof Parappilly’s own passion for physics grew in Year 8 and stemmed from her like of patterns and solving small problems.
While many school students are driven away by the seemingly challenging nature of physics, Prof Parappilly has always valued the creative thinking it demands.
"Many students perceive physics as difficult without even giving it a go. They think it contains traditional material of a mathematical nature, and hence don't see the wonders or creativity in it," she says.
“If you are looking at nature, physics is there. It can explain any natural phenomena.
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