About physics and teaching

Getting girls to take physics

with 7 comments

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

7 Responses

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  1. A problem with your plan is that not many girls take physics. I have asked and the main reason is that they don’t like it. Where would you get these woman to teach or talk about physics?

    Why is it important for more girls to take physics?

    This ties into a current discussion at math-teach about why schools started forcing everyone to take algebra and fail. It started with the realization that in Finland only 55% of the students go on to high school, the other 45% take the option to go to vocational school, do something they want to do, and be rid of academics forever. Here though, we torment students with algebra and other topics, that they are not interested in and cannot pass, for years and if they manage to hang on that long we torment them even further in community college. By that time, the same Finnish student has already learned a trade and is earning a living.

    Here is a thread discussing Finland, the actual educational system in Finland, fair warning, it will make you think twice about what we do to children in our interests …

    Here is some digging into how this trend started and drifted so far from the choices found in other countries…

    Bob Hansen

    Robert Hansen

    2012/02/23 at 17:05

    • Please tell me you’re joking when you wonder where we’ll get women to teach and talk about physics. You do have female colleagues, don’t you?


      2012/03/04 at 17:21

    • Hi, Robert. Thanks for commenting. You seem to be saying that the problem with my solution is the problem it’s trying to solve. In that case we are locked into a vicious circle. But I don’t think we are, because we are making good progress right now. To wit, we have female physics and chemistry teachers. And we are convincing more and more girls to take physics and are convincing a few more than previously to stay with physics through a second year. In addition, I currently have six former students now in college who are majoring in physics, three male, three female. There may be more (I just found out this week of one who is currently finishing his senior thesis!), and I haven’t counted the ones in engineering yet.

      The real problem with getting them to stay in physics was explained by a current college junior at a large university: On most nights, his non-science major friends would drop by his room to see what was up and get confused that he was “working.” He had to explain over and over, while they had their evenings free, he had to work. Now it’s not quite the same for my former students in small liberal arts colleges… even the dance majors there apparently have lots to do outside of class meeting time. But the perceived difficulty of remaining in good academic standing when you are in the sciences chases some students off. I hope we have helped our students develop a little more backbone than that.

      In response to your question about why we should “force” students to take algebra and physics, I should clarify my milieu: there are no students at my school who are not already deeply committed to going to college. Most see themselves in the future doing very intellectually challenging work. This is not a public school, nor is it a haven for the idle rich. The mission of the school is to live in the service of others, and, by golly, that’s going to take some serious preparation. So my starting point for convincing any student to take physics is quite different than that of other physics teachers.

      Mark Hammond

      2012/03/13 at 09:07

  2. Mark,
    For what it’s worth, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has a 47-page document that you can download, called Encouraging Girls in Math and Science: IES Practice Guide (Sept. 2007). (Google it.) Its authors are six researchers. They find moderate evidence for these three actions. I quote:

    (1) Teachers should explicitly teach students that academic abilities are expandable and improvable in order to enhance girls’ beliefs about their abilities. Students who view their cognitive abilities as fixed from birth or unchangeable are more likely to experience decreased confidence and performance when faced with difficulties or setbacks. Students who are more confident about their abilities in math and science are more likely to choose elective math and science courses in high school and more likely to select math and science-related college majors and careers.

    (2) Teachers should provide students with prescriptive, informational feedback regarding their performance. Prescriptive, informational feedback focuses on strategies, effort, and the process of learning (e.g., identifying gains in children’s use of particular strategies or specific errors in problem solving). Such feedback enhances students’ beliefs about their abilities, typically improves persistence, and improves performance on tasks.

    (4) Teachers can foster girls’ long-term interest in math and science by choosing activities connecting math and science activities to careers in ways that do not reinforce existing gender stereotypes and choosing activities that spark initial curiosity about math and science content. Teachers can provide ongoing access to resources for students who continue to express interest in a topic after the class has moved on to other areas.

    Jane Jackson

    2012/03/08 at 02:49

    • Thank you, Jane. I realize now that the meta-curriculum in learning that we teach (in large part due to the efforts of Kelly O’Shea and in no small part due to our on-going collaboration with John Burk) addresses item 1) above. I never really thought about it in terms of keeping girls interested in science, but now I realize that I have been using these “mindset” lessons to talk to girls about the kinds of annoying comments and reactions they may get from professors in college (the kinds of comments that roll right off young men, who don’t, in general, derive one whit of their sense of worth from a professors’ comments).

      The second item above is exactly what we are trying to do with standards based grading. Our feedback is very specific to the clearly identified learning goals. We are getting better and better at giving students guidance in how to “practice” physics on their own. As the year goes on, more and more this practice takes place outside the classroom, at whatever pace or urgency the student chooses (self-regulation/self-assessment could be thought of as yet another meta-curriculum that we teach).

      Your third item is the one we have to work on. Before girls even enter our classroom, they run a gauntlet of pictures of old white men. An alumnus gifted the school his collection of pictures of Nobel laureates whom he has personally met. We need to balance that out with pictures of all of the fabulous female scientists we’ve had visit for our Crump Physics Lecture Series. And we need to think more about the problems we give… I can’t remember where, but somewhere recently I read a nice paper about unintentional male bias in physics problems– change the problems slightly, everyone does better.

      Mark Hammond

      2012/03/13 at 08:48

  3. In other words girls get into science because of social reasons – instead of due to pure-raw interest on science? you get a bunch of females talking science, so girls can feel it’s acceptable to do so and follow these steps.

    What about boys – same motivations? is it also a preference based on societal expectations, or is it actual interest on the subjects?


    2013/08/28 at 07:19

    • I’m not sure I’m saying that getting into science is social for girls. I hadn’t really thought of that, actually. What I’m trying to say is that there are social reasons for girls NOT getting into science. I detect plenty of pure-raw interest in science from girls. Plenty, that is, early on in their school careers. That interest seems to slowly fade, and that fade might be, I’m arguing, social. The key here is to liberate that interest, in boys and girls. When I write about sharing food and conversation with young students, I mean both boys and girls. The sign-up for second-year physics this year was 15 boys and 8 girls, which comes to 30% of the senior class. The social approach seems to work in attracting both boys and girls to physics.

      Mark Hammond

      2013/08/28 at 09:49

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