How to create an undergraduate physics program in which women can excel

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How to create an undergraduate physics program in which women can excel

Janice Hudgings, Physics Department Chair and Associate Dean of Faculty, Mount Holyoke College

 

We have all heard the grim statistics: Despite rising number of bachelor’s degrees being awarded nationwide, the number of physics bachelor’s degrees awarded in the US is relatively stagnant.  Furthermore, the fraction of those physics bachelor’s degrees awarded to women remains around 22% nationwide, with the pipeline leaking female talent most heavily at the undergraduate level.

So, given that landscape, how do you create a thriving undergraduate physics program in which young women cannot just succeed, but excel?  The physics program at Mount Holyoke College graduates physics majors – all of them women – at a rate that is 3-4 times the national average for small colleges.  Furthermore, these women are outstanding young physicists, routinely winning major national and international fellowships and continuing on to the top physics graduate programs in the country.  What is the secret to this success?  The answer in part is to create an outstanding undergraduate physics program, period, but that by itself is not sufficient for women students to thrive (see the references below).

Clearly, outstanding teaching is an essential part of any successful physics program.  All faculty in the department should be committed teachers, using active teaching and learning techniques.  Replace the dry, boring lectures with classrooms full of students who are arguing in small groups, gesturing, laughing, and actively engaging with physics.  Every new physics faculty member should attend the American Association of Physics’ Teachers’ New Faculty Workshop to learn the latest techniques for effectively engaging students in physics.  Extensive use of peer mentoring, embedding of more advanced students into classes, benefits both mentors and mentees while creating community.  Peer mentors can offer optional evening classes to supplement the main class material, as well as providing homework help, individual tutoring, and role modeling. 

Strong classroom teaching is indispensable, but actually doing physics – inventing new knowledge – is also a vital part of an undergraduate physics education.  All physics majors should work in research labs, learning the applied skills that build self-confidence and translate to employment, while synthesizing their classroom theoretical knowledge in the context of real world problems.  Starting these experiences as early as the first year can be an effective recruitment and retention tool, particularly for populations of students – such as young women - who might be less sure of their welcome in the field.

Above all else, this notion of welcome is key.  Physics programs in which all students – including those traditionally underrepresented – can excel must create a welcoming, student-focused environment.  The good news is that there are a multitude of ways to do this.  Obviously, diversifying the department faculty and staff on as many fronts as possible is of utmost importance, but there are a host of things departments can do in addition.  Instead of trying to span the subfields, a small or mid-size department could choose to focus the curriculum and research labs on a topic that aligns with the interests of their target student population (in the case of Mount Holyoke, sustainable energy).  The department should be centered, literally and figuratively, on a vibrant physics student lounge with easy chairs, computers, a kitchen, and collaborative worktables.  A spirit of cooperation and community can be fostered with a strong physics club, department-wide social events, collaborative homework assignments, and a friendly, accessible department faculty and staff who overtly value diversity.  The department seminar series can be a weekly social event, with undergraduate-friendly speakers who are as diverse as your desired student population interspersed with career development discussions on, for example, summer internships or careers in industry.  While the good news is that there are endless ways to signal welcome, the bad news is that departments must do this repeatedly and in as many ways as possible in order to be effective.  It can be very difficult for underrepresented groups of students, including women, students of color, community college transfer students, and low income students among others, to hear even heartfelt messages of belonging against a broader societal backdrop that is saying the opposite. 

In summary, a successful undergraduate physics program in which young women can excel must combine academic excellence with an environment that welcomes women students.  Academic rigor delivered in the form of strong teaching combined with hands-on undergraduate research opportunities is essential to educating self-confident women physicists who are prepared to succeed in a competitive – and sometimes unfriendly – landscape.  But strong academics must be combined with a student-friendly department environment that reinforces a message of “you are welcome here.”  That message can be difficult for women to hear against a broader cultural backdrop of discouragement, so it must be repeated over and over…and over, even at a women’s college such as Mount Holyoke.

For additional reading on this subject, please see the following references:

-          B. Whitten, S. Foster, and M. Duncombe, “What works for women in undergraduate physics?” Physics Today 56(9), p.46, September 2009; (http://www.physicstoday.org/resource/1/phtoad/v56/i9/p46_s1?bypassSSO=1)

-          The American Physical Society’s reference page of statistics on women in physics: (http://www.aps.org/programs/women/resources/statistics.cfm)

-          The American Physical Society’s SPIN-UP report on thriving physics programs: (http://www.aps.org/programs/education/undergrad/faculty/spinup/spinup-summary.cfm)

 

 

 

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