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Classroom Discussions Can Help Lower Gender Gap

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Factors that affect the physical science career interest of female students: Testing five common hypotheses
Zahra Hazari, Geoff Potvin, Robynne M. Lock, Florin Lung, Gerhard Sonnert, and Philip M. Sadler
Phys. Rev. ST Physics Ed. Research 9, 020115 (2013)
Published 22 October 2013

High school class discussions about women's underrepresentation in physics may be the most effective way to encourage young women to pursue a career in the physical sciences. This is the conclusion of a recent study by a team of researchers who tested five common "hypotheses" of ways to close the gender gap.

"Lots of people have these hypotheses about what is good," said Zahra Hazari, an associate professor of engineering and science education at Clemson and lead author of the study. "We really wanted to empirically question some of those hypotheses and that common lore."

The gender gap in physics has remained stubbornly high, even as other scientific disciplines have approached parity. Currently about 20 percent of physics degrees are awarded to women. Many solutions have been suggested to close the gap, but progress has been slow. The five hypotheses tested by Hazari were ones that show up frequently in the physics education literature.

Hazari's work explored whether female students pursued physics careers at higher rates after experiencing:
  • a single-sex physics class
  • a female physics teacher
  • female scientist guest speakers
  • class discussions on the work of women scientists
  • class discussions about the underrepresentation of women in physics

Of these, only the last one showed small but statistically significant improvement in retaining female students. Discussing the work of women scientists hinted at some increased rates, but at just under statistically significant levels.

"We're not saying that role modeling can't help, what we're saying is it has to be more nuanced," Hazari said, adding that it is important for teachers to build relationships with students. "There is no sort of one-shot solution to the problem because the problem is complex."

She said also that she thought the reason talking about underrepresentation was effective is because it gets students talking about issues and how they relate to them.

"Those kind of discussions can be very useful for getting students aware that there are these equity issues," Hazari said. "They start to realize that there are equity issues that they weren't conscious of before."

The research drew on surveys from female students taken by Harvard University's Persistence Research in Science and Engineering Project. The initial surveys asked more than 5,000 students in freshman English classes at 40 different institutions about their high school exposure to physics and gender issues. Hazari's research team analyzed the results from a subset of about 1,600 female students who had taken a physics class in high school.

"We picked students in mandatory college English classes so we could get a more general population of students," Hazari said. "We wanted to get the students who hated physics in addition to the students who loved it."

Hazari and her team are continuing their research by looking at how teachers and classes talk about issues of underrepresentation.

"In some of our follow-up work, we have been observing in the classrooms of teachers who have been engaging in these kinds of discussions," Hazari said.

Hazari and her team's results were published in Physical Review Special Topics: Physics Education Research on October 22, 2013.


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Editor: Alan Chodos
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