Thursday, July 24, 2008

Question for Readers

I know this blog is sometimes read by bloggers who are engineers, including several women (some of whose blogs I have been reading off-and-on for a long time). I teach physics to future engineers and an eager, nervous new crop is showing up in a month or so. Many will not succeed.

What can I do to make a difference? What made a difference for you, or what do you wish you had learned when taking physics that you didn't figure out until later?

I wouldn't have mentioned women in the lead if the question wasn't partly about underrepresented groups in STEM areas. My classes at this CC often contain more minorities and women (as well as rural first-in-family men) than is the norm elsewhere. I remember being stunned one day in my Physics 2 class when I realized that white males were a minority. I know we have an impact, and not just in numbers: I know some of my female students have been extremely successful.

But I also know the physics classroom and lab is an alien environment. It helps that there are many more women around, but it is evident to me that they are more likely to face prejudices within their peer group than black students. (Mirror of misogyny meets racism in the Democratic primary season?) Part of this is the "boys talk authoritatively" problem mentioned in Saturday's blog.

Any advice?

I don't mind long comments, so feel free to "hijack" the thread. If you decide to blog about this instead, please post a link in the comments area so I will be sure to see it.


plam said...

I can't say, since I'm not an engineer myself; I'm only an electrical and computer engineering professor. But I'll read the comments with interest.

I think I wrote this already, but our failure rate for first-year has greatly increased from what it used to be (0% to 30%) at a reasonably selective university.

mareserinitatis said...

I think I'd been planning this post for about 4 years...pretty much since I finished my BS. I apologize for the length.

I will say that it's not so much what you can do but what they probably don't know that will cause problems for them. At least, that's how it was from my perspective. Informing them of these issues may in itself be enough.

Doctor Pion said...

Has anyone at your uni or in your college studied possible causes behind this huge change?

(Although I was looking for anecdotal information about success to add to the things I do by instinct, my own efforts are directed toward quantifying risk factors.)

Doctor Pion said...

Thanks, Serene Sea. ;-) More than I could have asked for.

I'll highlight something that resonated for me: "Be an active learner. ... Try to think ahead and see where the lecturer is going with things."

I have definitely been trying to move away from my teaching comfort zone into ways of fostering more active learning as per studies of physics classrooms. The idea I got here was to try asking them "So, where am I going next?" That works on many levels, from the next step in a problem to the next topic.

Rebecca said...

It sounds like you're already taking many proactive steps (e.g., not pairing underconfident women with overconfident men), which is good. The best professors I've had were good observers of non-verbal communication and psychology. They carried on a conversation instead of a lecture in the classroom. Sounds like you're in that subset of professors to me.

eri said...

I attended a top-ranked women's college for my undergraduate degree in physics, and I'm now about 4 years into a physics graduate program. I wonder if offering a womens-only physics class (or at least a womens-only lab) might be an option. It might be an interesting experiment for a semester, anyway. My own experience with labs at my college, and later teaching them at several state universities, is that women do better in the lab setting without guys around. You don't have to elbow your way in to get a shot at using the equipment, you're not as afraid of embarrassing yourself with a wrong answer in front of other women, you don't have the guys dominating the class, and there will be much more participation. Plus, of course, fewer distractions.

Doctor Pion said...

Interesting suggestion, but we don't have the enrollment to do it at our CC, and it might even be illegal.

I do try to do the next best thing in the lab, as noted in the last paragraph of a June 22 article. At least we don't have the problem of people fighting to get at equipment in our setup.

One difference between a CC and a university is that many of my students already know each other from having taken several math classes together. That means some kids sign up for labs with the intent of being lab partners. I have many instances where women signed up in pairs for the lab.

Candid Engineer said...

I don't know if my thoughts would be of any help to you, as you are probably already doing this. What I found most encouraging (in retrospect) was being treated like an intelligent student who very much had the potential to learn the material. My professors were typically VERY encouraging and willing to help me when I needed help. Make yourself accessible, tell your students that they can do great things, and you will benefit all of them, regardless of gender.

Don said...

Two factors made a difference for me.

A) lack of pretense in the sciences made a big difference for me. If it follows the scientific method, it is a scientific result... even if in later years it is shown to be wrong. Great scientists are from many religious views beyond atheism and are not required to "believe" in evolution unless there is verifiable data that a critic can review. Gravity had 150 years worth critics but scientifically showed its case. Evolution has its 150 years of critics and must get about the business of the doing the same, to be "as true as the law of gravity".

B) In engineering endevors, the collect data, analyse and present data in spreadsheets is a hugely common engineering task. Also, introduction into SCADA systems for collection and control of sensor data is and employable skill.

C) The ability to size up the effect of one's approximations. If a human is modeled as a cylander, how much error does that create? If gravity is not a constant "g = 32.174 ft/s2" at all points on earth, when is it useful for engineering to recognize the approximation?

D) Reviewing assumptions made of what is impossible. The critical test often occurs when an industrial setup shows what seems convincing as an impossible result. When in reality, what has happened is that one or more of the assumptions of the test are untrue... and no one is aware of the false assumption. Electrical ground loops, flawed capacitors, resistors, radio frequency interference with test equipment, thermal seprations in wire contacts. Heat dependent video falures. An introduction into broken assumptions has helped me a great deal.

Learning skills like these have hugely benefited me.