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Reflecting on this Past Week's Discussion

Flora's picture

Reading Tobias keeps reminding me of thoughts from the discussion we had last Monday, February 12th on Trawelk and Wertheim's theories. One of the important questions we discussed was what sort of change the physics community needs: either a one-time affirmative action program to get women to a critical mass or, as Wertheim advocated for, a complete change in the nature of the discipline, to shift focus away from this search for an ethereal truth. This question greatly parallels a similar question we are confronting in my Global Health course. To achieve a higher health status in a population: is it more effective to spend huge amounts of money on research to find a "magic bullet" biomedical intervention, such as a vaccine or supplement or is it more effective to spend that money on economic and social development programs? This discussion was sparked by a discussion of Thomas McKeown's theory on TB, which you can read more about at the bottom of the page here. There is a great deal of evidence that biomedical interventions alone are not enough to promote population health.

I chose to bring in this example because I think it clearly illustrates the question we are discussing here. Is the goal of medicine to understand the human body or to make people better? Should physicists do what is necessary to find a supreme truth or to, as Wertheim says Keller said (251) should they "choose our scientific projects on the basis of well-thought-out and conscious intentions" with ethical concerns in mind? This may bring up several negative images. For me that image is of Dickens' Mrs. Jellyby so consumed with the needs of others that she does not engage in her daily life. However, what is the alternative? And wouldn't this new kind of science with its different aims naturally need to include women and minorities in order to include a diversity of perspectives? I know it sounds idealistic, but I couldn't help clinging to this idea in the days after class.

oschalit's picture

my not to scientific science education

I feel it pertinent to talk about my science education because it was so unusual. i went to a small school outside of nyc that focused mainly on the arts and humanities. it had, right before i entered, been an all girls school and yet, still, there was very little emphasis on the sciences....never really thought very deeply about this until now. All i can remember from middle school science was talking about bodies, a little sex and reproduction, and the senses (smell, sight, hearing and so on). In high school you were required to take at least one science course. I took physics. In this physics class, believe it or not, i learned less about the actual topic of physics than I have in the class we are in now. We mostly talked about philosophy and, again, sex. Through my eight years at this school women remained the majority. In fact, in middle school, all math and science classes were single sex. I wonder, however, why it was that science was so "fluffy". It was not for a lack of good, competent, knowledgable science teachers, because we had plenty. I wonder, and i hope i'm not being cynical in any way, if perhaps it had to do with the teachers' response to the predominantly female classes. Despite the school's obvious attempts at encouraging the math and science fields to all students and provide as flexible and welcoming a scientific environment (by making single sex math and science classes) as possible, it seemed almost like a front to appease all the well-read parents who were concerned that their daughters were not receiving a proper scientific education. I remember distinctly that some of the boys in my grade, who felt inclined to pursure math or science, were mentored by older male teachers, taken under their wing so to speak. But outside of those who were self-motivated to learn more, the school remained lax about really providing this so-called liberal education we were supposed to be receiving. This may entirely be the fault of my school but it concerns me very seriously that any school might assume that making superficial changes to a school to encourage strong scientific learning is sufficient.

Just a thought...If we do not own science, and call it ours then we cannot make it ours. I believe in a humble approach to science. I believe that science is part of nature and nature should not be controlled. However, if we want to approach science in a healthy and multi-gendered way, then we need to take control of it, we need to own it.

Pemwrez2009's picture

from my own!

So, this semester I am taking Introduction to Computing to fill my quantitative requirement. After having read these articles I guess I felt that I could really relate with much of what was said in them. I'm not a math person. I'm not really a science person either, though I was able to do really well in physics through out my entire high school science experience, which was pretty intensive. The Comp Sci class that I am taking right now is very different from how it was taught in previous years. This year each student is given a robot which we program ourselves. This has proven to be extremely helpful because I am able to see the results that I produce and can understand them. Ex) if I write a program and command the robot to go forward, and it doesn't work. There is something that I did wrong in the command that I typed. (this does get much more complicated as we start writing different mathematically related formulas)

I guess I mainly wanted to discuss the idea of how science is taught in life. Whitten and Burciaga introduce in their article, this idea of being active with the sciences as opposed to actively listening. It seems that most institutions of education in the sciences are only starting to cater to the education needs of marginalized groups in the class room! This is a wonderful thing to me this idea of active listening is proving to be less and less successful it seems for people to grasp. However i continue to worry about the idea that people are going to see specialized science programs as some sort of science special Ed. Not that special ED is bad in any way shape or form, though I just worry that there will be a stigma connected to this way of teaching.

Rebecca's picture

Maturity matters

The fact that educational reform needs to take place at the higher levels caught my attention.  I, as most people/scientists, just assumed that the reform needed to take place at the lower levels.  My experience of introductory science was different from the stand-in’s experience but I believe there was one important variable that the experiment did not control for.  I think maturity and their time spent away from school are really important factors in their critiques of their fellow student’s apathy and the overall lack of a narrative in their classes. I think with maturity your study habits and ideals for classes change and when you are an undergraduate you are often still in a high school way of thinking, especially freshmen year.  In high school, competition between classmates and grades are emphasized as everyone is competing to get into college so naturally those things carry over to college.  Perhaps then, it is important to also evaluate how the college admissions processes work.

eli's picture

Round and round we go

This reading seemed to be pretty much the same song and dance. Science is competitive, it likes to weed out the bad eggs, so on, and so forth. Maybe I'm too Darwinian or Adam Smithian in my thinking, but aren't many, many aspects of our world are built on this idea that competition is best. This is a question we are not just grapplng in science but also in the world in general. When is competition without a purpose?

I think we're running around in circles here, saying the same thing. I believe that science is not inherently going to be an uncooperative, 'masculine' environment, and I think we're all saying that. Are we arguing that it is not, to personify science, a psychological problem but a socialization problem? That we make science what is it? Then we are back to the problem. If science is what we make it, how do we make it something else? By changing how you teach science, ideally by introducing more women into the field or introducing Bryn Mawr-esk supportive techniques. Yes, good. How do you do that if women are turned off by the current teaching methods?

Either we're just trying to give ourselves a pat on the back by saying we (Bryn Mawr College's science departments) have got the answer or are moving in that directon...or this constant chicken and the egg scenario is going to make my head hurt for a while.

Sam's picture

I'm afraid I'm going to be

I'm afraid I'm going to be retreading an old subject, but what really struck me was the culture of science. The hard sciences aren't attracting people like they used to, but there's still the culture of weeding out all but the creme de la creme-- I experienced it on a much smaller scale as a freshman when I took a chemistry class that was basically described as being sink or swim. Very unusual in a school where you can get a fair amount of hand holding (that's not quite the phrase I want, but I can't think of the proper one at the moment).

Not only that, but the different things people want from sciences, according to Tobias' article. I suppose that's what stood out most, for me. She pointed out the humanities student that wanted the "exchange of ideas," rather than the problem set. To me, this is the difference between the hard and the soft sciences-- hard sciences are all about math, numbers, things to be quantified, whereas the soft sciences are like what the humanities student expected. Which is odd, given how much of physics is the exchange of ideas and full of "why" questions.

I also noticed that the "why" questions tend not to be asked or answered, especially early on. It's just a given that X value is what it is, and you can't understand it yet.

Actually I'm pretty much just rambling, but I found it really neat that Tobias was discussing different approaches to physics that would work. Treating physics as a softer science rather than a course in Mathematics With Real World Applications 101 would attract more people, I think.

sky stegall's picture

this weekend's readings...

were fascinating to me, illuminating and somewhat disturbing.  i've got to say first that i'm REALLY glad i didn't go someplace like the university of arizona!  it was really helpful for me to see different pedagogical systems and ideas, because i really want to be a physics teacher, but it was also a little weird to have so much negative stuff brought to the front and repeated.  i started with "they're not dumb..." and got pretty angry at several points, but i think my anger served to show me exactly where my experiences differed so much with these students'.  on my best days i might consider myself a second-tier kind of physics student, but i'm well aware that it's my tenacity (stubbornness) and determination (pride) that's kept me in the major for so long, not so much any natural talent in science or math itself (as my department can attest).  anyway, what was particualrly interesting to me were the responses from the professors to the auditors' reflections and field notes, because they illustrated for me a departmental and collective thinking of the "professoriat" that i haven't had to deal with - bryn mawr physics profs are SO much more aware, more helpful, more personal than any of these guys!  which is, in part, why it was neat to first see reference to professors i've heard of if not met, and then read something from juan burciaga.  it feels good to know bmc is part of this larger conversation, and has been for years.  anyway, the short article was, again, particularly interesting to the science-teacher part of me, perhaps because i've never felt explicitly excluded from a curriculum and here i got to see ways it happens and how to avoid/fix them.  it was somewhat boring to read the same statistics over and over again, and to continually revisit (but never directly address) things like the potential loss of women in the field to family concerns, but i appreciated that both these readings had more specific focuses and real, practical solutions to try against the problems they raised (sorry, anne, but that wertheim reading was worthless to me in its grand, theoretical and [i think] pretty impractical desire to completely overhaul what she thinks theoretical physics is).  maybe that's the experimentalist in me, but it was so comforting to see programs being used and studied and developed, rather than simply more discussion of data.  

Anne Dalke's picture

Stalking the Halls of Science Education

Thanks, Flora and Rosemary, for kicking off the discussion about science education, our focus for this week. We're looking forward to hearing from everyone else about their reactions to the two readings (by Whitten/Burciaga and Tobias), about the intersections between them, and about how they connect to our previous readings, and to our own experiences in science classrooms.

rmalfi's picture

Culture of Competition

The reading on Tobias definitely tied together a lot of what we have been talking about in class. I was able to reflect, like Flora, on past readings that we have done, and it is clear to me that a particular theme keeps popping up over and over again. It seems that the "culture of competition" that exists within the sciences acts as a major deterrent to many people considering entry into the scientific world, especially women. This came up in Mary Thom's article about academia and graduate school (pp. 81), Sonnert & Holton's article on men and women's career patterns in the sciences (pp. 68), Sharon Traweek's article about her anthropological study on high-energy physics (pp. 90), and certainly it appears all over the Tobias article we just read. According to Tobias, hard sciences have a cold, impersonal nature and the focus of scientific study “emphasiz[es] extrinsic rewards like getting good grades, and objective goals like getting into graduate and medical school” rather than “love for one’s subject and intrinsic motivation in one’s work” (pp. 74). At an institution like Bryn Mawr, which is small and places special focus on women achieving in math and science, it is hard to imagine this scenario, but I do believe that this is felt at many institutions and that this sentiment may be a large culprit in reducing the number of women (and minorities) in fields like physics and engineering. In fact, if I hadn’t gone to Bryn Mawr, I can’t say that this would not have deterred me from science. One of the main motivating factors in choosing Bryn Mawr was the honor code and the fact that people actually do not talk about grades. Competing with myself is hard enough. Sonnert and Holten describe stylistic differences between men and women in physics, and one of those differences is “a niche approach” in which women “creat[ed] their own area of research expertise. One respondent observed that ‘women may shy away from very competitive projects more than their male counterparts.’” I find this particularly interesting, having researched the life of Vera Cooper Rubin, a female astronomer, for our class salon. She describes her incentive to study dark matter in this manner – she wanted to do it because no one else was working on it. She didn’t like working on problems to which everyone else was racing for an answer. A more cooperative environment may be more conducive not just to women, but to the type of people that find enjoyment or contentment in learning and experimenting for the sake of discovering without the anxiety of going it completely alone or failing to receive credit or fame… Traweek speaks of an anxiety about time that exists in high energy physics field… Perhaps this is part of what generates the competitive culture found in physics (and in the sciences overall)…