May 20, 2010

Why are there so few women in physics?

I cannot pretend to be able to address the answer to the question of why men overwhelmingly dominate (in terms of numbers) in physics.  It is a complex question with no simple answer.

The question does get raised enough, though, by people who have thought very deeply about it, that I often get to read and ponder what they are saying.  Usually I'm directed to an article via a tweet by Eric Mazur, such as this recent blog post from American Thinker which argues that science academics are at risk of becoming "PC" (politically correct) to the detriment of this country's science and technology pursuits.

You don't have to dig too far to figure out which way the editorial staff of American Thinker leans, but I was interested in the blog post they linked to (and quoted from) on the Washington Post's website written by Christina Hoff Sommers.  In her post, Sommers recapitulates the main thesis of a book she edited for the American Enterprise Institute, The Science of Women in Science, which says that institutional bias is not mainly to blame for the gender imbalance in science.

Sommers was also replying to a criticism of her book from an article in Nature, which she linked to. I don't agree with either "side" since I believe that the answer is too complex to be boiled down to a soundbite or quote in an article or blog post. (This blog included.)

The Nature article discussed one of the essays from Sommers book which cited psychological and behavioral studies of children and the toys that boys and girls seem to prefer.  I wonder what the authors would think of this comic which a friend of mine linked to recently:

It's funny, for sure, and it makes you think.  Anecdotally though, I know of at least one couple who are self described liberals who decided when they had their first child to make sure that their daughter was raised without any gender bias.  And they saw that by the time the daughter was old enough to start choosing her own toys, she went right to the pink section of the toy store.

Of course, as Mazur would say, the plural of anecdote is not data.  As more often than not is the case, I have to let experts who have done rigorous studies guide my thinking.  So while I might not agree with any of the opinions in the articles I linked to, at least there was a lot to read for me to think about.  I would hope that everyone would agree with one thing that Sommers said in her piece:
Scientific preeminence is one of America's greatest national resources. President Obama and NSF officials should be doing all they can to preserve it. That means finding creative and effective ways to encourage gifted students of both sexes to pursue careers in science and technology.
You can read the rest of the article to see if you agree with anything else she said.

Finally, it is not only this country which has an issue with gender imbalance in science.  In an effort to recruit 20 top-notch scientists and engineers for a $200 million dollar program, Canada found 19 qualified applicants, all male.

May 19, 2010

Two wrongs certainly don't make a right...

Today in my astrobiology class, I was talking about Saturn's rings and ringlets and I showed this photo:

This is an image of Saturn's F ring as imaged by the Voyager 1 space probe in 1980. We were discussing the ring structure and I was showing that some parts of the rings were not perfectly circular. This is due to the gravitational effects of the small moons near the rings on the ring particles.

But in talking about the ringlet in this photo, I was also telling the class about the camera technology on the early space probes.  I said that the Voyager camera was actually a film camera. Space probes with film cameras have the capability to process the film on board and then used a scanner to digitize the image for transmission to Earth.  It's a great strategy that was used before digital cameras were regularly put on space probes.

Except, the Voyager missions didn't use film cameras.  Oops.  Guess I'll issue a retraction next class.

But on my train ride home I was reading my current book: That's the Way the Cookie Crumbles: 62 All-New Commentaries on the Fascinating Chemistry of Everyday Life by Joe Schwarcz when I realized I had made a mistake in my OTHER class that I'm teaching.

Yesterday in "Light and Atoms" we were talking about what holds water inside a capped bottle having a hole on the side of it. (Answer: the air pressure of the room holds it in until the cap is loosened.) But the topic of surface tension was raised by one student.  So I turned on the water faucet and splashed the water around in the sink with my hand.  I asked if the water molecules were being held together by chemical bonds and if so, was I producing a chemical reaction to break the bonds as I splashed the water around.  (My answer was no, which it still is, but it was still part of the mistake.)  I then went on to explain what surface tension means and how you can lower it with a tiny bit of soap.

Except that surface tension depends on the weak hydrogen bond between water molecules.  I didn't talk about that.  So, I may have left the class thinking that there is no chemical bonding between water molecules.  Clearly that's not true.  The mistake I made was mixing analogies.

I'm quickly trying to learn more about hydrogen bonding so I can figure out how to correct any confusions I may have introduced.

May 17, 2010

Students' study time analyzed

A recent post in the Freakonomics blog came up in conversation at lunch today. The question was whether or not the new schedule our university has adopted (MW and TTh classes only) was leading to students missing more classes on Mondays. (Short answer: we don't know for sure.)

But that question reminded me of the Freakonomics post, which was little more than a link to the original paper. Read the article, it's not hard to digest. If you don't have time to read it all, here's a graph which summarizes much of the results discussed in the paper:

The data couldn't be clearer: students on average are spending less time outside of class studying the material covered in their classes. This is probably one of my largest gripes with interacting with students: how do I convince them that they need to spend more time outside of class with the material so that we can optimize our time with them in class?  I don't know the answer to that question, but it is something I'm always looking for answers to.

What was a bit surprising to me was one of the ideas suggested in the very first comment:
The reduced time inputs between 1961 and 2003 are probably mostly a result of increased productivity through better technologies – i.e. internet research, graphing calculators, word processors etc.
Makes sense, right?  I mean, computers are faster, the internet now puts information on every student's computer almost instantly and no student really even needs to spend the time to walk over to the library for a research paper, right?

All of that is true, but I doubt seriously that students today are just more efficient studiers than students of the past.  No matter what mode I use to present a concept to a class, the students will not really understand it until each one of them has taken the time to engage with the material on their own such that it makes sense in their own head.

And, full disclosure: when I was a student, I probably didn't spend as much time studying outside of class as I should have.  But, the classes I did the most work on were the ones I got the most out of.

May 08, 2010

R. wins 329-266

Renae had the bingo today: goutier. Two in a row for her.

May 06, 2010

Reflections on reflection.

Today in "Light and Atoms" we looked at the ray model of light. The goal was to be able to understand how the rays from a light source (or object) behave in order to use ray diagrams for curved mirrors and eventually lenses.  We spent quite a bit of time on our discussion and had to rush through the activity at the end.

I handed out plane mirrors, corkboard and pushpins for a law of reflection activity.  Many of the students had to leave before they completely finished the activity, but those who stayed really liked it. That's definitely a keeper activity.

The lab we did today was a lab exploring the formation of images by converging mirrors. I had the students use the lab writeup in their textbook.  I got the sense that while the class completed the lab all right, I would be surprised if most of the students actually understand the reflection off concave mirrors at the level the lab was written at.  One of the TAs even commented that there are some labs which do not work well to facilitate learning and that this was one of them.

I don't have any answers as to how to better teach reflection off of curved mirrors.  I need to refer to some of my favorite sources for inspiration.