Monday, October 18, 2004

I got an interesting email this morning from someone on the wacky physics education listserve that I've discussed before. It deals with why women don't do as well in physics classes as men (the major sociological question about the field which we are allowed to ask). The writer's solution is contained in the following:

"As part of this project, I'm asking for funds to develop a totally new paradigm for teaching introductory physics that STARTS with symmetry and Noether's principle (a woman!) and gets to Newton's so-called laws later, and removes ALL references to war and military devices in mechanics. There is so much about physics that is NONviolent: cosmology and astronomy are purely nonviolent; other branches are, in and of themselves, nonviolent, but do have potential to be applied to violent activities. We just need to remove the connection in our undergraduate and K-12 teaching that involves even a shred of violence or connection with war. I believe that this is a
major deterrent to young girls from thinking of themselves doing physics, namely, because introductory physics, which is fraught with military applications (planes, bombs, projectiles, missiles, racing cars, etc) is emotionally aligned with traditionally male activities."

The class that the writer talks about designing is a good one, I think. Recently, I've become a strong believer in the need to deemphasize Newton's Laws in introductory physics classes. However, I think this needs to be done for other reasons than the global goal of deemphasizing violence in the physics classroom.

Do women do worse in physics classes because they are uninterested in war making technology and terminology?

I don't think so. It seems that the writer is bringing in their own predjudices about foreign policy into their thinking on education. I might buy the argument that girls don't want to pursue careers in physics becuase they are turned off by the miltary talk, but I can't accept that they don't do well in a class that they are already enrolled, because of the masculine military talk.

More likely, they don't do well in a class because (in this order):
(1) the teacher isn't good at teaching them.
(2) the class requires incredible amounts of memorization (see #1)
(3) the class is decontextualized from other learning and the rest of their lives

Frankly, I don't really remember alot of war talk in class, anyway (selective male memory). Yeah, there's the "shooting the monkey" deal and projectile motion, but most of mechanics for me was boats trying to cross rivers and pushing boxes up ramps (I guess those are men's jobs as well). The whole second semester of thermo and E&M has even less to do with warfare.

Further, the triviality of war speak in physics classes is made even more apparent by the fact that most students don't encounter physics until their senior year in highschool, if not college. Students are taking biology for most of their science experience prior to this. Women entering college don't feel an affinity to science, and don't enroll in high school physics classes at the same rate as men. The leaky pipeline has already been set up, even before girls have taken thier first physics class.

I think we need to concentrate on other more global things (it not being a woman problem but a people problem). The simple fact is that the majority of intro physics classes are taught horribly by people who know nothing about teaching. Of course, the students with the least background resources (women, minority, poor) are going to get the least out of these classes on average. (I'm saying here that WM&P students have fewer role models in science, less access to personal contact with scientists, fewer opportunities to have performed real science in the past, less familial/peer support, less knowledge of where to obtain resources.) But really, all students suffer from bad classes even if they do manage to survive and pursue a career in the field.

My guess is that the writer's class will show improvement in achievement for the women in the class. However, I bet that it will also show improvement in achievement for the male students in the class. The effect of the demilitarization of the class will likely be vanishingly small, if compared to other reformed classrooms that still use Newton heavily and military terminology.

Whenever a teacher looks closely and critically at their practice, all students benefit. I think that's what we need to focus on.


edited for clarity


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