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Maha Bali's blog has now moved to http://blog.mahabali.me

Gender Issues in Teaching Physics?

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I recently signed up for the MOOC for physics educators that Dave Cormier is collaborating on with Piotr Mitros on EdX.

One of the first things we were invited to do is share our goals for participating, and mine are multiple, including wanting to be part of the non-physicists helping out in the design of online material for teaching physics, but also wanting to be part of this xMOOC/cMOOC experiment, and honestly, just wanting to be part of anything that Dave Cormier and other rhizo14ers are doing.

BUT I have an axe to grind with physics education. Should i or shouldn’t I share it? I have recently gotten used to blogging what is on my mind, so I will share it!

I think there might be gender issues in teaching physics. I do not mean this in a gender discriminating way: I think girls and boys have equal ability and potential in learning and grasping concepts of anything, including maths, physics, computer science, engineering (i am a computer scientist myself, originally).

My parents were both good at maths and physics, and always had faith in my abilities in them, so it was not them. I have had great physics teachers and got A’s in all my physics courses in college, love all my physics teachers (all male, though) so it was not the teachers who made me feel like i don’t know physics.

But I am not confident that I really understand physics well. If you know me, I am a pretty confident person and high achiever, so I still don’t know why this is the case. Like I said, the grades show otherwise, and there is no direct link with family or teachers: I had good role models who believed in my abilities.

But something is wrong. So what is it?

It could be a number of things. I read once (i will try to find the reference) that much maths and physics use examples that appeal more to male students than female students, e.g. Relating to cars,sports, etc. I am a girl who actually loves sports (even more than my husband) and cars (though maybe in a different way than most men) so I don’t know that this is necessarily the issue. I love maths, so i don’t know why i have problems with physics. Still, even for girls who like cars and sports, society seems to encourage this love more for guys than girls (e.g. I know more boys who start learning to drive before the legal age).

It could be an overuse of teaching approaches that emphasize spatial intelligence? I was once observing a college physics class where the teacher wanted students to show their understanding of a certain formula (can’t remember what,now) and he asked them to estimate a certain number of meters. I understand the formula well and the concept. But I know in that situation I could not estimate a number ofmeters. And neither could the girl in his class. When she gave a wrong answer everyone (mostly boys planning on studying engineering) laughed. I thought in hindsight that if he had asked me to estimate the number of tiles i might have been able to, even though i understood that physics concept really well! But number of meters? I didn’t have that ingrained in me.

There was also the electronics college professor who for some weird reason picked on some girls. There was a particular girl he kept making fun of whenever she asked questions. She was not stupid, she just asked her questions in a girly voice and in a hesitant manner, but they were good, valid, questions. I wonder how she felt about the course and the teacher and her ability in physics. I wonder how many boys sat there who did not understand a thing but just never asked out loud.

It can also be a societal perception: I am a computer scientist. Until the day he died, my father (who was a medical doctor) believed he knew how to fix problems with his computer better than me (he could not, of course). Males all around me at work and in my personal life make these assumptions all the time and even when proven wrong repeatedly continue to make them. It is usually easier to let them: let them fix my computer problem while I watch and be grateful. Occasionally, if they struggle I will make some suggestions, usually ones that save time for everyone. Not always 🙂

To be totally honest, I was never starry-eyed and in love with computers and technology the way many guys are. It’s just not my thing. But I do love what technology can do for me, and I will figure out whatever i need to figure out to make it work for me – like to help me communicate with people all over the world in a MOOC!

So back to physics… A small part of me took this MOOC and wants to see physics again from the perspective of high school science teachers. How do they think about reaching their students? Do they think about how to make physics understandable to those who don’t necessarily love it, the non-nerds?

Will I understand something about physics better as I work with physics teachers? I did when I worked with folks at college before. But they tended to assume I remembered the physics I had during my freshman and sophomore years. I don’t. I have moved on and studied education and don’t remember much!

I know my case is not a fluke, I know many girls who struggle with physics, so I am hoping to look at that again through this MOOC.

Let’s see how it goes, then! A rig-a-jig-jig and away we go…

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Author: Maha Bali

Associate professor of practice, American University in Cairo

7 thoughts on “Gender Issues in Teaching Physics?

  1. Dear Dr. Maha
    I think our culture is somehow responsible for this issue as our Egyptian society is male dominated . when a girl was born , the only toy was a doll and for a baby boy , they just bought cars and planes for him. So the problem maybe with parents who don’t develop their children skills . According to the neuroscience study, when children grow, they will learn many new things. They don’t get new brain cells. The neurons grow and develop only when the children use their brain to learn how to think. The brain cells have to be connected. These connections are called synapses. When children get through experiences, these connections will be effected. Children will think and use their brain cells when they have experiences. As a result, the synapses strengthen eventually. So children can develop these skills over time. If the connections are not used, they will become useless. Without any practice and over the years, they will vanish.

    • Hey Elham, thanks for commenting. I think what is strange for me is that my parents got me trains and cars as well as dolls. They told me i was good at maths and physics, and i was, grade-wise: i love math but i have no idea how i ever got good grades in physics coz i never felt like i truly “got it”

  2. Very interesting Maha – I’m sure you’re right about the gender issue in physics and science and engineering subjects in general where female representation is usually low. On becoming admissions tutor in a UK university engineering department and finding that only about 13% of students were female I interviewed as many as I could to see what we might do to improve. The female students seemed to deal well with what little overt bias they encountered, mainly from fellow male students but had issues with the way lecturers would sometimes when explaining things assume geeky backgrounds, messing with motorbikes and so on, outside their female experience. This is a matter of educating male teaching staff who tend to have geeky backgrounds themselves! We also ran taster courses for girls around 14 yo in the hope of influencing them towards a career in engineering before other societal pressures were brought to bear but there was little evidence of increased female recruitment. This was almost 20 years ago so maybe things are changing for the better now, eg more female teaching staff, but the necessary cultural changes that would encourage more female participation in science and engineering do seem slow in coming.

  3. Hi Maha, thanks for writing this out in words. In Computing we have serious gender issues as well. i wonder if there is something more to this that we can explore.

  4. Hey Maha, my younger daughter was told by a math teacher the “girls don’t do well in math” when he needed his gas fireplace installed I took our female apprentice with me to do the job. Didn’t change him but impressed his wife. My daughter now has a masters in water resource management and her own college department.

    Where I used to work the best power engineering instructor is a licensed power engineer who worked in remote oil processing all over Northern Canada with some pretty rough guys. She works in town because she wanted to start a family. I also think she got tired of the remarks. Not because she’s particularly sensitive but for the constant ignorance that men aren’t afraid to display. Same happened with my apprentice, she works out of the shop doing sales and service and doesn’t have to fool around explaining herself all the time.

    You know that teaching isn’t always about knowing everything or being able to recall things instantly. Plus I can’t imagine you in the role of a maiden in distress, except to be respectful. Having daughters I know that women have to be at least 50% smarter than men–which really shouldn’t be too hard:-) But it is because of that micro-second hesitation women feel?

    Maria Droujkova at Natural Math http://www.naturalmath.com/site-pages/about-us.html might be able to help you with advice? Go to Wikipedia MOOC edit history for mid-July 2011 forward and you’ll see her there with Nellie Muller and Lisa Lane

    • Thanks, Scott. Good stories you have shared. Well, and as I said, I did get highest honors in computer science and I love math. But I also semi-left the field by doing PhD in education (but my work and teaching involve ed tech – would you believe my male students want to help me set up the computer before I start class? Chivalry? Or chauvinism? I hope it is more the former than the latter).
      Yes, Len, lots of gender issues in computers and engineering. I talk about these in my classes. Often, people either deny the discrimination, or don’t see it as a problem!! I might write a blogpost on that!!!

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