A blog for any man, woman or transgender, who feels physics could be more welcoming to the feminine.

Extracts from a student's journal

In Chemistry, we get a lot of time to really digest a topic...Chemistry leaves me in awe, and feeling humble and so grateful. Physics leaves me feeling rushed and slightly insecure, as though I can’t possibly learn it fast enough. The laws of physics rule the universe, and learning about the universe usually makes me feel small, but in a good way, like I can do anything, and like I’m part of something. I feel like I should be experiencing more of that learning physics, but instead I’m feeling insecure and somewhat inadequate. In Chemistry it’s like “here are all the rules you’ve been playing by that you never knew about, isn’t that amazing, aren’t we fortunate?” In physics it’s more like “These are the rules. Bow down.” It makes me feel underappreciated. I’m doing all I can to learn this subject, but it’s almost as though physics in general thinks it’s doing me a favour...

1 comment:

Esther Haines said...

This is not a comment on this post specifically, more a general response to this blog so far.

There are three points I'd like to make.

1. When I was at school I was good at physics and I enjoyed it. There were subjects that I did not enjoy. The reason was not so much that I found them difficult as that I could not see why anyone would want to do them. It seems to me that many people may well have a similar problem with introductory physics courses.

2. Physics seems to be taught with a complete lack of attention to context. By this I do not mean that there should be more boxex in textbooks with explanations of how microwave ovens work or how photocopiers work. I mean that there should be more discussion of the intellectual context of what students' are being asked to learn - Why is this problem considered important? How does this bit of physics fit with other bits?

3. In my, admittedly limited, experience of teaching undergraduates I've found that many do not see physics as having any connection with reality. Three examples:
(i) The student whose response to being asked to calculate the theoretical efficiency of a heat pump was that devices that move heat from a colder region to a warmer one are forbidden by the second law of thermodynamics (presumably including the refrigerator in the kitchen).
(ii) The time I was discussing an assigned problem concerning tides in the ocean with some students and realised that most of them had no conception of what a tide is. I couldn't help feeling that our time might have been better spent going to the beach and watching the tide come in and go out rather than having a completely theoretical discussion about which formula they should plug numbers into. (Obviously geographical location is a factor here.)
(iii) A discussion about teaching with a colleague who commented that the students probably found quantum mechanics harder than electromagnetism because electromagnetism is classical but I suspect most of the students found a E-field just as much an abstraction as a wave-function.

My own education in physics was designed to produce problem-solvers - people who were good at answering the questions: How big? How much? I think this is important and we don't want to lose it but are there other things that are important as well?