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Monthly Archives: November 2015

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Can you point me in the direction of the research stating that a Y chromosome makes you better or perhaps more adequately suited to do physics? Nothing? Okay, how about the research that shows that an extra X chromosome instead of a Y chromosome makes you less competent in physics. Nothing there either? Great! Let’s start acting like that’s the case.

The word “feminist” is never a word I use to refer to myself – the cartoony caricatures have riddled society’s knowledge of the actual definition of the word. Feminism, by definition, is the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men. Wait, I thought that was just being a decent human being. Well, okay, if it’s not, then what’s the opposite of feminism? If you do a quick Google search of that exact question, the results will turn up the following:

“Chauvinism is the same as, rather than the opposite of feminism. If feminism was really about equal treatment of the genders, it would be called humanism or equalism. There is no opposite to feminism in existence. That’s part of the problem.”

That’s wildly fascinating, no? Anyway, I’m not here to rant about everything that is wrong with a lack of women’s equality. I am here, however, to rant about the way we need to start treating the students we teach that they can be in whatever field it is they choose.

 

I was raised on video games and watching football, typically not things associated with a female toddler. But I had my first Oakland Raiders cheerleader outfit when I was two (how I long for photographic proof of this) and my own Playstation when I was four. I did other things that were considered “girly” like ballet, which shouldn’t be exclusively considered girly, but “back in my day,” it was. I didn’t stick with ballet, though, but I still love the Oakland Raiders, and my Playstation game collection has reached an all-time high of over 120 games. These are things I choose to continue with, based on what was implanted within me and deemed to be acceptable. I chose Playstation over pageants, perhaps comparatively like I chose physics over nursing.

Nursing is a female dominated field, while physics is predominantly male. This of course doesn’t mean that I think males don’t belong in nursing (I have a long time male friend who’s an excellent nurse). Anyone who is stuck in this prehistoric mindset should reconsider their values that are so painfully anachronistic in the twenty-first century.

I have frequently run into the preconceived ideas regarding women in physics during my time at Warner thus far. For some, seeing women in physics seem to be, to quote Janis Ian from Mean Girls, like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs. The question perhaps isn’t what makes physics such a male-dominated field, but rather, what can we do to change the portrayal that it is such? How do we convey to those that we are teaching that ANYONE can be a physicist?

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The chart above shows the domination of women in a particular field of science. It is clear that physics and engineering have smaller fractions of women, where physics has actually taken a recent dive over the past twelve or so years. What happened in this time? Particle physics was booming and the James Webb Telescope began its development, both significant advances for both of the highest order in terms of macroscopic and subatomic topics. Was the decrease due to deficit, prehistoric mindsets of those who portray physics to be a “boys only” club? Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) began shortly after the decline (2006), so maybe they realized something was up with regard to a relatively significant decline with respect to the rest of the 50 years graphed above.

So if we’re teaching science to both men and women, how will you portray any field of science? Surely students are inquisitive – just because you teach biology doesn’t mean you won’t get a question about physics. Do you tell the girl who thinks space is cool that most astronauts are male? Do you tell the girl that wants to work for CERN for the summer that she would be better off looking at doing something else, like nursing or dental hygiene? Do you tell the guys in the class that they have a better chance at being a superb physicist than any female ever could be?

If your answer to any of the last three questions is yes, you can take whatever chromosomes that you have and challenge your deficit thinking with a reality check.

 

thank-you

For my blog post this week, I give you my introduction and acknowledgments section of my STARS paper.

I want to start by thanking the Get Real! Science (GRS) program at the Margaret Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester for the opportunity to participate in such a diverse, enriching program. The work laid out for you as the reader here required days of thinking, planning, collaborating, debating, innovating, and implementing. Even though this paper can be sent off to whomever chooses to peruse through it, the work as an educational professional is never truly complete. The lessons I’ve learned from this experience will indubitably carry into my professional career in physics education.
I would like to thank quite a few people in this next section: The entire support staff of the GRS program, including April Luehmann, Andrea Cutt, Xiaoyu (Ella) Wan, Kristana Textor, and last, but certainly not least, Nicholas Palumbo. Thank you all for pushing me to come up with more innovation ideas and the tools necessary to implement these in my study. A special thank you has to go to Nick, who was the most organized snack distributor I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting and working with. Additionally, Nick, thank you for laughing at all my terrible jokes and thinking I’m a funny individual.
To my fellow EDU 434 classmates and master teachers alike, Tingyu Zhao, Dan Dalmat, Paige Whitney, and Anam Ikram, thank you for your unwavering support in all of the endeavors of both myself and my fellow cohort members. Words cannot express the gratitude I have for your time commitment in both attending STARS sessions weekly as well as combing through lesson plans and giving essential feedback whenever you could. A special shoutout to Dan Dalmat for all of your effort with Cyan team, both inside the sessions with the rapport you formed with the students and the ideas you assisted with as well as outside the STARS classroom in your constant support with developing improved ideas in lesson planning and being a great source of hilarity in EDU 434.
To Jo Ann Morreale: I can never thank you enough for the time and dedication you put into us actually getting something out of seminar and cleverly intertwining it with what we do in STARS. I can also never thank you enough for the time and effort you put into scaffolding better lesson plans such that we as well as our students can be successful in the world of science. My gratitude for your assistance and guidance could never be conveyed enough.
To my GRS Cohort, in alphabetic order: Dan Baker, Sharon Dudek, Christa Stell, and Daniel Zucker: I can never thank you enough for the friendship and support throughout this whole process and the continuation of this until at least next August. The friendships I have made with you and the collaboration that we’ve had together are invaluable experiences I will cherish forever. Never stop being you guys – you’re a great crew of people that have changed my life for the better, forever.

 

Outside of GRS, my eternal gratitude belongs to Mrs. Janet Fogg-Twichell, the undergraduate coordinator in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Rochester. There is not a single shred of doubt in my mind that I certainly would not be where I am today, had it not been for the patience, perseverance, support, guidance, assistance, compassion, and friendship this woman has shown me. Thank you for everything that you do, Janet.

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Vigilante: a member of a self-appointed group of citizens who undertake law enforcement in their community without legal authority, typically because the legal agencies are thought to be inadequate.

The general community of science teachers that exists is pressured by standards, drowning in content, and lacking adequate ways of getting people interested in the concepts and magnificent nature of the world. Sure, someone can tell you all about wave functions and how to normalize them, Schrodinger’s equation, and the principle of superposition. But what does that mean in any context? Is it actually exciting to normalize a wave function and walk away from it? No, not at all. It’s just a bunch of gross math, in fact, and gets you to something that, in reality, do you actually comprehend? But what if I proposed to you that classical mechanics, the mechanics in which we can study at a macroscopic level, could not explain your very consciousness – but rather, your consciousness had to be explained using principles of superposition and quantum entanglement. Your thoughts, feelings, and consciousness – all explicable by mind having manifested the capacity to make choices. “Mind… is to some extent inherent in every electron” –Freeman Dyson. The difficulty in telling all of this is how unproven it actually is – this idea of a quantum mind is highly theoretical and supplementary to core content, but it’s a heck of a lot more interesting than finding a normalization constant.

So what exactly separates a new way of teaching science versus the rote, boring way? Science is a way of thinking rather than spewed facts and fleeting knowledge. Science can be made to be understandable and visual in context, even the most complicated of concepts. Do you understand the existence of outer space? Its vastness? The radius of the observable universe is 46.6 billion light years. What does that even mean? That’s nothing more than a fact in astrophysics that has little meaning unless it’s unpacked. Is a light year even comprehensible to any human? What about a billion of something? I don’t think I can comprehend even 10,000 of one individual thing, never mind that squared, and then that times 10. But let’s think about the distance from here to the Sun, a significantly more comprehensible number, yet still not the most simplistic thing to grasp. Any way, distance from here to the Sun, got it. Take that number and multiply it by 50. That will give you the approximate radius of our solar system. I won’t bias your understanding, but that’s a big number. Let’s continue.

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Let’s consider the distance we are from the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, our loving, spiral shaped home in a vast, vast universe. We are 8000 parsecs from the center of our home galaxy, which is over a billion times greater than the distance between us and the Sun. Think back to the radius of the solar system – the distance between us and the center of the Milky Way is 33 million times that.

We’ve got a bit more number crunching to do – we’ve only thought about the center of our galaxy. How big is our galaxy in reality? It’s about four times the distance that we are to its center (30,000 parsecs as opposed to 8,000). Okay, so our galaxy is massive. Except, that’s just one galaxy. How many galaxies are in our universe? 100 billion, as predicted by Hubble Space Telescope (HST), but the technology of HST is not necessarily outdated, but certainly not the furthest advancement space technology will ever make (assuming funding continues). So, the number of galaxies is actually probably closer to 200 billion. That’s a lot of mass, stars, planets, and whatever else is out there.

So the radius of the observable universe, I’d have to line up almost half a million Milky Way Galaxies to get that number. I’d have to line up almost 60 trillion solar systems. I’d have to line up 6.9*10^19 Earths.

Sure, I could tell you to find a normalization constant. Sure, I could tell you the radius of the observable universe. Or, I can be a vigilante in the scientific community, and I could actually teach you something meaningful, contextual, and give you a perspective on science.

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My planning led to the intertwined culture of science into the lives of these four kids (as well as others in the program who are not pictured), but it didn’t all happen that simply. There was ditching my original script of trying to teach them straight physics and switching to engineering. The camaraderie of different activities playing out throughout the weeks wove into interrelated acts of a play. Everything came to fruition in the final act, known as “East High Night of Science.”  In finem noctis, I went for a high five from one of my students and got a hug and a “thank you for everything you’ve taught me and letting me be here” instead, a certainly more desirable alternative.  And though praise was never asked for, especially a self pat on the back, I’d say everything turned out pretty darn fantastic.

The lessons I learned from STARS are extensive and I am grateful that I’ve gotten the chance to work with such great kids. I can’t believe it’s finally come to its conclusion, and I can look back and actually say that I had an impact on the influence that science has had in these students’ lives. Hopefully they decide to pursue it as a result rather than shy away from it.