About physics and teaching

Archive for February 2012

Getting girls to take physics

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I know I said my next post would be about ways of teaching Newton’s Third Law, but that was a long time ago. I’ll get to that over spring break. For now I’d like to expand upon something that I originally wrote to the Modeling Listserv about getting more girls interested in physics, especially second year (“AP” or otherwise college-level physics).

At St. Andrew’s, we have had some success in getting more girls to stick with physics through a second year course. Almost all of our students take first year physics, and that may be driven by concerns about college admissions. But I think some of the things we’ve done to encourage more young women to take our second year course have also helped the trend toward 100% participation in first year physics. Quickly, two things appear to me to be important:

  1. Hire and retain female science faculty. This is very important– perhaps most important. It is great to have female physics teachers, but even if female biology and chemistry teachers “talk up” physics by making connections to their courses, it makes a huge, huge difference. It is especially important that female biology and chemistry teachers not “talk down” physics. I’ve seen this happen in very subtle ways, and the effects are pernicious.
  2. All physics teachers (and anyone else who is in a position to talk to students about their science course choices) should “talk up” physics. By this, I don’t mean putting up posters, making announcements at school meetings, etc. What I mean is having one-on-one, meaningful and deep conversations with the girls at your school. From the time they get to your school, girls should be getting encouragement to explore math and science. Personal conversations are key. You have to get to know the kids in order to influence them.

If girls see women doing science and teaching science, they are less likely to uncritically accept societal norms that tend to discourage them from science. Somehow this seems totally obvious to me. Am I wrong?

Also important is what girls hear from adults around them. If taking physics is a common expectation, then all students are more likely to consider physics a natural step in their science training. I can’t stress enough how important it is to get to know future students. I often feel as though the most important thing I do each day is to eat lunch or dinner with students- not only students I’m currently coaching in class, but students, young and younger. By eating together, they see that I am human. They see that I love my job and that I am eternally excited about physics. And I get to see their fear, worry, curiosity and excitement. In the middle of that big mess, we somehow connect and they find themselves, somehow, wanting to know why physics is so interesting. You can’t do this with presentations or posters. You have to have the human interaction.




Written by Mark Hammond

2012/02/23 at 14:19

Posted in Uncategorized