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Undergrad physics inaccessible to women November 23, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, feminism, physics, teaching.
Tags: , , , ,

I was very intrigued when this month’s Physics Today showed up in the mail.  While scanning the table of contents, I noticed an article called, “Problems with problem sets.”  The summary went on to say that the problem with undergrad physics courses is that they often use problems which require specific background knowledge.  Men are more likely to be acquainted with this knowledge than women.

The gist of the is that many of the problems in physics texts assume knowledge of various areas like construction, meaning that more men than women will be acquainted with the problem set up.  Many times, these problems will make reference to various tools or constructions without giving an explanation or picture to describe what’s going on.  They assume the students will understand what is being asked without further explanation.

I guess I hadn’t run into this a whole lot as an undergrad, but I think I may be a special case.  As a kid, I worked with woodworking tools because my dad was a carpenter.  In fact, I regularly had to help out in the shop, so I got a lot of hands-on experience in building and working with tools.

On the other hand, I think that when I went back to school, I wasn’t afraid to ask questions.  I’ve observed that there are a large number of students who don’t like to ask questions, especially among the youngest students.

It’s a very interesting premise.  Obviously it didn’t deter me, but I can see how this would be very intimidating for young women.  It would definitely make many of them feel like they didn’t have a good enough background to do the work.  I’m glad that someone is paying attention to issues like these, and I hope professors will pay a lot more attention to the problem sets they give in the future.



1. Jackie - November 23, 2011

The article is behind a firewall, so I haven’t been able to read it. That said, based on your description, I’m tempted to think it’s utter bullshit. I am not at all “mechanical.” I did *tons* of problems as an undergrad in my very demanding physics major at an elite school, and I never ran into this problem.

What problem did *I* have with problem sets? Well, at my school, you needed to do them in a group in order to survive. Finding a study group willing to treat me as an equal and not use our meeting times to hit on me was a nightmare, and this was much more of a turn-off. I suspect I’m not alone in this. Of course, that was 20 yrs ago – I hope things are better for young women today.


mareserinitatis - November 25, 2011

As I mentioned in another comment, the authors were very quick to state it was a generalization and that it didn’t apply to all individuals. So probably your reading was a misrepresentation on my part. I do think it’s safe to say that, on average, a lot of women didn’t used to have exposure to these things. I think it’s increasing, but in general, that probably is still true.

I had the same problem with studying until I basically started doing them on my own and then I’d sit down or call someone else to ask them how they did things. The phone was a great save for me.


Jackie - November 25, 2011

“I do think it’s safe to say that, on average, a lot of women didn’t used to have exposure to these things.”

The reason that I think the article might be BS is that I can’t recall a single physics UG problem that I had to solve that relied on my pre-existing knowledge of tools or machine parts, etc. That would have stuck in my mind, I think, since I was *not* at all familiar with these.

So can you provide an example of such a problem, perhaps from the article? Is there one in Halliday & Resnick, or whatever the kids use nowadays?

And by the way, at my schools the problem sets were specifically designed so that no one person (short of a true genius, I suppose) could complete them on their own in the time allotted. This was done on purpose to develop teamwork skills. So, good intentions, but it didn’t work as planned for everyone….


mareserinitatis - November 29, 2011

A couple of the physics examples from the article:

“The 200-kg steel hammerhead of a pile driver is lifted 3.00m above the top of the vertical I-beam being driven into the ground. The hammerhead is then dropped, driving the I-beam 7.4 cm deeper into the ground.”

“The figure shows two disks: one (a) an engine flywheel, and the other (b) a clutch plate attached to a transmission shaft.”

“Rubber with large elastic hysteresis is very useful for absorbing vibrations, such as in engine mounts and shock-absorber bushings for cars.”

And from a calc text:

“One way to think about the definition (of a limit) is to suppose we are machining a generator shaft to a close tolerance. We may try for diameter L, but since nothing is perfect, we must be satisfied witha diameter f(x) somewhere between L-e and L+e… The value d, how tight our control setting must be, depends on the value of e, the error tolerance.”

So the point, I think is that while some people may be able to get a general idea of what’s going on, it’s difficult to determine exactly what’s happening. There are too many things in there that may not be easily comprehended.

As far as group work goes, I’m fairly sure my first undergrad institution tried to do that, too. I found it easier to work as far as I could on my own and then spend tons of time in office hours or checking with classmates only when I got stuck. For one thing, there were less distractions, but I also find I simply work better that way. Even when I switched schools, I was the only woman in my major and ended up dropping a class because of required group work (https://cherishthescientist.net/2011/02/25/repost-worst-group-project-ever/). There has been a large amount of research (and I have cited things in previous posts) saying that such an approach helps men, in general, and hurts women because they are excluded. But I think there are other ways to make women feel less welcome as well.


2. Eric J - November 23, 2011

At the K-12 level, this is also a concern, not only for girls, but particularly for underprivileged groups who are experience-poor. Teachers have been attempting to improve assessments with this concern in mind for some time, but the problem still persists, especially in math and science.


mareserinitatis - November 25, 2011

I think this is why there is a push toward more hands-on experimental approaches to physics. If you’re all working on the same thing and making the assumption no one has any background and therefore it must be acquired in class, it puts students on a more level playing field.


3. anon - November 23, 2011

I read this article too, and thought it quite interesting. I’m surprised that our colleagues in physics education haven’t already done a study on this. Interestingly, I also felt I was an “exception” in that I was fairly knowledgable about tools and construction (I did Odyssey of the Mind and Destination Imagination when I was younger, which involved building things) and was also a girl. I wonder what fraction of the women readers also feel like an exception in this manor? It might support the authors’ hypothesis…


mareserinitatis - November 25, 2011

One of my colleagues at engineerblogs, Miss Outlier, has discussed how she grew up around a shop, as well. I couldn’t help but wonder the same thing. Unfortunately, I’ve run into too few females in physics and engineering to know if this is a trend or not.


4. Jacob - November 24, 2011

I can’t access that article from here (so much for “Nullius in verba”, eh). But I remember in high school math, a lot of my classmates – especially recent immigrants – struggled with some of the questions that relied on “common knowledge” backgrounds. It wasn’t a gender bias as much as a cultural one, in this case.

For example, test questions on probability would often be something like “you draw a standard poker hand from a deck of cards. What is the probability of drawing a Straight Flush? What is the probability that one of the cards you draw will be a diamond? What is the probability that none of the cards will be either a Jack or a Spade?”

Stuff like that, a lot of people struggled with, for reasons that had nothing to do with probability. Not everyone knows there’s 52 cards and 4 suits in a deck. That kind of discrimination happens a lot and it takes a thoughtful curriculum to comb it out.

BTW, I hope that the paper backs up the suggestion that males are more familiar with woodworking tool terminology than females. It sounds like blatant stereotyping to me. Despite being a male, I never was familiar with that sort of stuff until I took shop in university. The girls were just as often the ones handy with tools, whereas I was right at home in sewing and home ec. When, in high school, torque and the right-hand rule were explained in terms of “twisting a screwdriver”, it went right over my head, and I had to remember it other ways.

(Currently studying engineering physics, btw.)


mareserinitatis - November 25, 2011

That’s an interesting example because I was working with some math teachers a few years ago to develop curriculum for an algebra class. One of the things they discussed was that most kids (in general) don’t play cards with their parents and are therefore in that same position. But yes, it’s a very real problem. It doesn’t make sense why the base assumption is that most people have not seen some of these things and there ought to be more explanation.

The authors made it very clear that this was a generalization but also that it did not apply to everyone. So their argument was that, on average, men would be exposed to these things and women would not. But they were very clear to point out that the opposite was true for many individuals.


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