The Gender-Neutral Physics Project: Where Them Girls At?

[This post is the first in a series that is jointly developed by Shawn Cornally and one of his former students, Helaina Thompson. Our goal is to increase the rate of female retention after entry-level physics courses.]

My realization that there is a big problem in the world of physics happened as soon as I arrived to the first day of Cornally’s Physics II class and found myself with only one other girl in a class of 22. Cue the ‘derp derp derp’. Like, that gender ratio is no good.

Unfortunately, it seems said ratio becomes all too common as students advance in a physics curriculum. It’s got David Guetta asking us, “Where Them Girls At?” And why do they leave?

David is really concerned with the lack of females in the world of physics.

My name is Helaina. I’m a senior at Solon High School (IA) spending the majority of my school day at a local community college. In my remaining time I work at a small wine and gift shop, ski with the Five Seasons Ski Team hello, force diagrams! – and watch Nova and sci-fi movies with my dad (who happens to be an engineer); it’s probably no surprise I’m into physics.

I plan to continue studying physics in the future, ideally among a more proportional mix of males and females. Therefore, this issue has become increasingly important to me.

Considering the drastic decline in high school female enrollment during the transition to more advanced physics courses, happening not only at Solon High School but mentioned in this publication as well, I’ve come to believe that the origin of this increasingly important issue resides in the way Physics I is being taught – centered around heavily male-biased lessons and investigations.

It appears that females generalize a poor experience with kinematics to physics as a whole and decide to completely discard the subject. The hunch that Cornally and I have is that kinematics is especially difficult for high school students and the lessons that teach them are inherently male-biased.

This makes me sad because so many young women are missing out on the wonder and curiosity that encompasses the most basic study of our being that truly is physics, and just because they think they don’t like airplanes or Nerf guns.

So, Cornally and I sat down this summer and hashed out a plan to disrupt the disturbing gender pattern of physics and get both girls and guys to become absorbed in Newtonian concepts. Here’s our provisional gender-neutral strategy:

We’re thinking: Art

By incorporating art (whether it be photography, a sculpture, music, etc.) into a physics lesson or project, two opportunities arise: the first, the ability to meticulously plan and design toward a singular goal – a tendency I have noticed of my female peers – and second, the ability to work with one’s hands and play with the process of trial and error – something I have observed to be more typically ‘male’.

Cornally and I have challenged ourselves to construct a gender-neutral project with an emphasis on creativity and design for each significant standard of the Physics I curriculum.

For example, we’ve gotten some really awesome ideas and inspiration from sources like Colossal and can’t wait to try something like this for a projectiles standard:

I’m guessing  ̶C̶o̶r̶n̶a̶l̶l̶y̶’̶s̶ ̶r̶o̶o̶m̶  the entire school will be full of tennis balls in the near future…

Each project will be described in a separate blog post and will be accompanied by results of the overall success, measured in surveyed levels of efficacy (“Flounder, Struggle, Try, Can, or Got It!”) as well as simply whether or not both males and females enjoyed the project (“No, Meh, or Yes”).

However, I suppose the true success of this study will manifest when the roster for Cornally’s Spring 2013 Physics II class is revealed, hopefully containing the names of more girls than ever before.