Friday, December 3, 2010

Two Ways to Help Girls with Physics

Two recent articles give some great clues on how to help girls do well in physics. Though both describe interventions at the college level, it's easy to see how they could adapt to high school physics and even middle school physical science

Do girls still need a boost in physics? Ten years ago, although as many girls as boys were taking Algebra II and chemistry, girls still lagged boys n high school calculus and physics enrollment. That's no longer true. The College Board's 2010 report on college bound seniors shows that 50% of those seniors who report having taken physics and calculus are girls. Now the last remaining bastion of high school male domination appears to be in computer programming. But college women still enroll in physics less often than men and are less likely to complete a physics degree, so increasing women's success rate remains a priority for college physics departments. That's why these studies are important.

The first study, which appeared this week in Science Magazine, tried a simple intervention: 399 students in a calculus-based introductory physics class were asked to write two short (15 minute) essays early in the semester. They were given a list of topics, and half were asked to write on a topic about something they most valued, and why, while the others were asked to choose a topic they didn't particularly value. The surprising result was that writing early on about something they highly valued markedly improved women's performance throughout the course, shifting C students to the B range, and reducing the male-female performance gap. Those women who benefited most were those most likely to agree with the statement that men are better at physics than women.

The study authors aren't sure of the reason for their results, but hypothesize that women who wrote about their values felt more relaxed, focused, or committed in class. Nevertheless, it's a curious observation, and one that could easily be tried in high school.

The second study deals with the issue of spatial relations, where males seem to show greater aptitude than females. One can speculate as to why: do male brains start off different, or does playing with blocks and cars or building things in the basement develop spatial sense more than does the social play favored by girls? At any rate, it's been established that a stronger spatial sense predicts greater success in introductory physics.

For years, Ron Thornton of Tufts has been using motion detectors and other handheld sensors (microcomputer based laboratories, or MBLs) in teaching elementary physics. With motion detectors, students can see in real time how movement of a sensor translates into graphs of position, velocity, and acceleration. With temperature detectors, students can watch the temperature of a cup of coffee equilibrate with that of the surrounding room. These tools help students develop an intuition and understanding for how what happens in the real world can be represented in the graphical world.

Now Thornton and Maria Kozhevnikov have shown that teaching elementary physics using MBL tools not only improves students' spatial visualization, it erases the physics learning disadvantage that comes with having weaker spatial visualization skills to start with. The more the students are taught in the hands-on, MBL environment, the stronger their conceptual understanding of force and motion and the stronger their visualization skills as measured by an instrument that seems completely disconnected, a paper-folding test.

It turns out that it's not that hard to give students a good shot at mastering physics. The evidence is that girls and other students who worry that their group isn't that great at physics benefit from a chance to reflect on what they really value at the beginning of a course. And all students benefit from hands-on technology-supported inquiry labs where they can learn to visualize what's happening with force, motion, and temperature.

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