APS News

Combating 'Science Anxiety' in the Classroom

By Art Hobson

Priscilla Auchincloss (The Back Page, APS News, May 1998) points out that much needs to be done and can be done to attract and retain more women in physics. I would like to add some comments regarding that great majority of women who are, and will remain, non-scientists. There is much that physicists can do to encourage these women toward greater understanding, confidence, and enthusiasm about physics.

In presenting physics to nonscientists, it is imperative to recognize that most of them have severe anxiety and fear of failure concerning science and math. This is an unfortunate fact of American culture, a self-perpetuating problem that begins in homes and grade schools when science-anxious parents and teachers communicate their own anxiety to children. Science anxiety then accompanies these children to adulthood, when the cycle repeats.

As the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and others have noted, science anxiety is especially significant for women. The AAAS report Science for All Americans notes that "Far from dismissing this anxiety as groundless, teachers should assure students that they understand the problem and will work with them to overcome it. Teachers can....make sure that students have some sense of success..., and they should de-emphasize getting all the right answers. Many students are fearful of lab instruments. Girls in particular suffer from the mistaken notion that boys are naturally more adept at using tools. ...Because the scientific and engineering professions have been predominantly male and white, female and minority students could easily get the impression that these fields are beyond them or are otherwise unsuited to them. This debilitating perception-all too often reinforced by the environment outside the school-will persist unless teachers actively work to turn it around."(Oxford University Press, New York, 1989 and 1990).

This cycle needs to be broken all along the line: at home, in grade school, in middle school and high school, in college, and in adulthood. One such place is in high school and college science courses for non-scientists. Here are six classroom suggestions, not original with me, that have been successful in my large-enrollment liberal-arts physics course.

Make the course relevant to real human concerns. In my experience, women are especially interested in the human implications of science, implications for the environment, for children, for a peaceful world, for Earth's future. When physics is taught within the social and cultural context of topics such as global warming, energy resources, pseudoscience, and scientific methodology, students can appreciate its relevance to their own lives.

Cite role models, such as Marie Curie, Irene Curie, Lise Meitner, Ida Noddack, and Susan Solomon. Noddack's first National Ozone Expedition in 1986 confirmed the Antarctic ozone "hole" and led to Solomon's hypothesis, since confirmed, concerning the CFC-initiated chain of events by which ozone is destroyed. Another good candidate is Cecilia H. Payne, the astrophysicist who, in her 1925 PhD dissertation, announced the revolutionary discovery that the stars are made primarily of hydrogen.

Keep it conceptual. As Paul Hewitt (see the instructor's manual accompanying his textbook Conceptual Physics) and others have argued, non-scientists have little need for traditional problem-solving techniques, or the accompanying algebra. It is possible to make the course numerate (with graphs, powers of ten, probabilities, numerical estimates, etc.) but non-algebraic. Do not introduce technical terms unless and until they are really needed. Follow Arnold Arons's maxim: "idea first, name afterward." Dispense with formulas, or state them only as proportionalities, or state them first in words and then perhaps with symbols-explaining that the symbols are merely abbreviations for words.

Discuss science anxiety as well as fear of failure, fear of speaking up in class, and fear of laboratory apparatus. Explain that these fears are often due to overbearing siblings and parents, or parents and teachers who are themselves anxious about science or math. Your class should provide a supportive environment for all students to work through such fears. Laboratories, in particular, offer lots of opportunity for one-on-one help from an understanding instructor. Be sure your lab assistants understand this.

Here is one revealing technique for discussing science anxiety: Ask your class, verbally, a simple problem such as "It's 120 miles to Little Rock, and you drive there at 60 miles per hour. How long does it take?" Then immediately ask "What are you thinking at this moment? Are you thinking about solving the problem, or are you thinking: Oh no-it's one of those horrible word problems?" For those many students whose first reaction was anxiety, the trick will be to learn to relax while thinking about physics. A way to do this it to practice relaxation (breath deeply and relax) while studying physics, during practice examinations, during real examinations, etc.

Keep classes interactive and student-oriented. Call on students by name, even in large lectures, where you can at least learn the names of those who speak up in class. Toss out topics for brainstorming and discussion.

Use peer instruction techniques. I give peer-assisted pop quizzes in which students work in groups to answer a question posed to the class, but are then responsible for their own written response. Pop quizzes should be for extra credit, so that students never lose points when they miss class or answer incorrectly. Questions should be sufficiently easy that most groups will, perhaps with coaching, come up with the right answer. I also use peer-assisted "workshop questions," similar to pop quizzes but not handed in. It's inspiring to see a large classroom buzzing about physics. Eric Mazur (Peer Instruction, Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ, 1997) and others show that all students respond positively to these group-learning techniques. My observations persuade me that women respond even more enthusiastically than men.

It's important to work on both sides of the "physics gender gap." We need more women in physics, but we also need more women outside of physics.

Art Hobson (ahobson@comp.uark.edu) has been teaching physics at the University of Arkansas since 1964 and is the author of a liberal-arts physics textbook Physics: Concepts and Connections (Prentice Hall). Art has also been very active in the Forum on Physics and Society.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin