Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"What keeps girls from studying physics and STEM" - An Important Article That Did Not Answer Its Own Question

Anyone following this blog for any considerable period of time would have seen my keen involvement in trying to engage more girls and women into physics. So this is a subject that I've followed and had participated in for many years.

So when I came across this opinion piece article, I will read it in its entirety, because even if this is a first-hand account of one's experience (the author is a female physicist), it is still another "data point" in trying to figure out what kind of hurdle a female student like her faced during her academic years.

Unfortunately, after reading the article, I am no closer in understanding the unique challenges that a female student faces, or what a female scientist faces, in the field of physics. She describes what can be done to improve education and open opportunities, but these are NOT specific to female students!

My advanced placement (AP) physics class, unfortunately, was about memorizing equations and applying them to specific contrived examples. I did not perform well on the midterm exam. The teacher advised me to drop the course, along with all the other girls in the class. 

This would be a turn-off for male students as well! So if that is the case, why is there an overwhelmingly more female students leaving the subject? She didn't say.

I stayed despite the teacher’s pressure, as the only girl in the class, and did well in the long run. I learned to love physics again in college, conducting original research with inspiring science professors who valued my presence in the scientific community. Physics professor Mary James at Reed College helped a lot by creating an active learning environment in her courses and teaching me that physics also needs “B” students.

Again, any student of any gender would benefit from that. This is not unique only to female students. So it still does not address the imbalance.

But there is so much more work to do. One key factor is federal funding for research. Federal funding is the main source of support for the kind of high-risk, high-reward investigations that sparked innovations such as the Internet, the MRI and GPS.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., serves on the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee and understands the connection. In her recently released report “Opportunity Outlook: A Path For Tackling All Our Deficits Responsibly” she states, “By supporting early stage basic research that the private sector might not otherwise undertake, federal investment in R&D [research and development] has played a critical role in encouraging innovation across a swath of industries.” 

Again, this doesn't address the lack of women in physics. Increasing the opportunity and funding merely increase the overall number of people in the field, but will probably not change the percentage of women in this area. There's nothing here that reveals the unique and unforeseen hurdles  that only women faced that are keeping the participation down.

In the end, she simply argued for more funding to increase the opportunity of people in physics. There's nothing here whatsoever that addresses the issue of why there are very few women, both in absolute numbers and in relative percentage, in physics. I think there are other, better articles and research that have addressed this issue.


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