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Simple Writing Exercise Boosts Grades of Female Physics Students

November 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Although men and women are equal in their abilities concerning math and physics, women still seem to lag a bit when it comes to grades in the Physics classroom.

Consider the classroom of Akira Miyake from the University of Colorado. Female students got grades, on average, 10% lower than male students. A significant difference. Miyake knew that this had nothing to do with ability, so how does one fix it?

Well he tried a technique that had been shown to increase the exam scores of black students in American high schools. These students were victims of the “stereotype threat“, which is when an unfair stereotype is applied to a group to which you belong (i.e. black students do worse in school than white students). However, after utilizing a technique called “values affirmation”, the scores of the black students dramatically increased. In fact, the increase was greatest amongst the poorest students. What happened?

The technique involves a writing exercise in which the student writes a few sentences about their core values (family, religion, creativity etc.) and write why those values are important to them. The exercise takes no more than 15 minutes. This was done twice at the start of the school year, and the results show a large increase in the students scores.

So could it work for women too? Women also suffer from the unfair stereotype that they are not as good at math/physics as men. Therefore, they don’t have as much confidence and don’t do as well. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But Miyake did an experiment. He divided his introductory Physics class into 2 groups, with equal amounts of males and females in each group.

At the start of the year, he asked Group 1 (the “values affirmation” group) to write about their core values and why they are important to them. He then separately asked Group 2 (the “control” group) to write about the values of someone else and why they might be important to another person. Both groups were told that this was an exercise in writing ability, not physics grades.

He then compared the results of the 2 groups with their final marks in the course, as well as how well they did on the Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation (FMCE), which is a standardized test about basic physical principles. These were the results:

As you can see, the women’s scores increased, whereas the men’s scores remained largely unchanged.

This is quite a result. With a simple writing exercise designed to instill confidence and reduce the effect of the stereotype threat, exam scores in the class increased by an average of about 5%, and about 13% for the FMCE.

So what we find is that it’s not enough to debunk the myth that men are better than women at physics, we have to get women to believe it as well. To believe in themselves.

Why am I so interested in this issue? I have written about it a couple of times. Mainly because it frustrates me. I tutored during my time in University and many more girls asked for tutoring than guys, because they didn’t do as well. This was mainly because, in my opinion, they simply didn’t have as much self-confidence when it came to the exams.

“I’m no good at Physics, I just want to pass,” was a phrase I heard more than once.

“No, you will not just pass,” I told them, “you will do well.”

But making them believe it was tough, because of all the stereotypes they no doubt encountered through their lives. So I would tell them about these kinds of studies, how girls are just as good as guys at science/math. I even told them how I came in 3rd place in my senior year research project class. 1st and 2nd place went to two girls.

So it’s an uphill battle, but progress is being made. If I ever have a daughter, you can be damn sure she will not grow up thinking that she is not as good as guys at science or math.

Behold! The Non-Browning Apple!

November 29, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s lunch time. You take a bit of your delicious apple. A colleague asks for your opinion on something, and you forgot about your apple for a few minutes.

When you return to it, you find it has become brown and gross. You throw it away out of disgust.

But its possible this may not happen again, if a new breed of genetically modified apple which doesn’t brown gets approval for growing. A biotech company called Okanagan Specialty Fruits of Summerland (OSF), based in British Columbia, Canada, has developed the apple and believes it will be a hit. Neal Carter, president of the company said

They look like apple trees and grow like apple trees and produce apples that look like all other apples and when you cut them, they don’t turn brown. The benefit is something that can be identified just about by everybody.

He says that the new type of apple will encourage it to be packaged in salads and children’s lunches, helping lead to more healthy eating.

How does it work? Well my biology is a little rusty, but basically what happens is this:

When you pierce the skin of the apple you expose the innards to oxygen. This causes a chemical reaction to occur involving enzymes which create melanin, the same pigment in your hair and eyes, and leads to the apple turning brown.

OSF has licensed a technology from Australian researchers which stops the production of a certain enzyme, polyphenol oxidase, which causes the browning.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out, but it will be awhile. The approval process for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service can take years.

In the meantime, there are a couple of things you can do to prevent your fruit from browning. You could drizzle some lemon juice on it, as the acid helps prevent the enzymes from turning the fruit brown. Also, you could refrigerate the fruit before eating, as the cold temperature reduces the rate of the chemical reaction which produces that nasty brown colour.