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Marie Curie Voted ‘Greatest Polish Woman’ Ever

March 7, 2011 Leave a comment
Portrait of Marie Skłodowska-Curie (November 7...

Marie Curie ca. 1898 - Image via Wikipedia

It seems that the Museum of Polish History conducted a poll to find out who was the greatest Polish woman in history.

The winner came out to be physicist Marie Sklodowska-Curie, known for her work in radioactivity.

Curie also was the first female professor at the University of Paris, as well as the first person ever to be awarded two Nobel Prizes; one in physics and the other in chemistry.

She past away in 1934 due to complications from radiation poisoning, but she did get a physical constant named after her: the Curie (Ci) which is 3.7 x 1010 decays per second, which is about the radioactivity of 1 gram of Radium-226.

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Girls Who Bike to School Get Better Grades

December 21, 2010 2 comments

Via Wikimedia Commons

The Holidays are upon us, which means everyone at work is on vacation and I have a lot more stuff to do and shopping to do after work. Unfortunately, my dear blog has suffered.

But I am back, and I got a good one for you.

A recent study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine looked at 1700 high school students and how they get to school. Some walk, some take the bus, some bike, etc.

When they looked at the female grades they found that girls who actively commute to school, i.e. bike or walk, did about 4% better than girls who took the bus or drove.

Active commuting to school was associated with better cognitive performance (all P < .05) in girls but not in boys, independent of potential confounders including participation in extracurricular physical activity. In addition, adolescent girls who spent more than 15 minutes actively commuting to school had better scores in 3 of the 4 cognitive performance variables (all P < .05) than those who spent less time actively commuting to school (≤15 minutes) as well as better scores in all of the cognitive performance variables (all P < .001) than girls inactively commuting.

Interestingly, they did not see this difference in the male participants of the study. Why this happens, is a bit of a mystery.

It could be that the girls are more alert when they get to school if they walk/bike, resulting in better performance. But if that were the case, you would expect to see this difference in boys who actively commute to school as well.

It could be that girls to actively commute feel better about themselves, and therefore do better in class. This would fit in with a previous study I wrote about in which girls who write about their values before class tend to get better grades.

More and more these kinds of studies are showing that innate intelligence is not as big a factor for success in school as was thought a few decades ago.

A positive state of mind is important as well, especially for girls.

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.

Who Is Better At Math, Guys or Girls? Answer Found Within…

October 15, 2010 1 comment

It’s always been an unfair stereotype that girls are not as good as guys at math. A lot of girls feel like they are not supposed to be good at math; that math and science are boys territory.

Science teachers and parents have been trying to spread the word that its OK for girls to be good at math, and to like math. And now, we have the science to prove it.

A recent meta-analysis of the published research in this area was performed. In total over 1.2 million people were studied between 1990 and 2007. Students from grade school through college level were included, as well as the results from several long-term, large-scale studies. The results all show that there is no significant difference between the math skills of men and women.

JS Hyde, one of the authors on the paper, discussed why there is still a stereotype in our society,

There is lots of evidence that what we call ‘stereotype threat’ can hold women back in math. If, before a test, you imply that the women should expect to do a little worse than the men, that hurts performance. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So having the data to show that women are just as good at math as men is only half the battle. We have to start making a change in our culture and encourage more girls to pursue their interests in science and math.

Women + Science = Awesome

August 11, 2010 1 comment

My undergraduate physics class had about 30 students who got their B.Sc. at the same time as me.

Only 4 of them were women.

But dammit, they were equals every single step of the way. We studied together, we wrote tests together, and we got drunk after we wrote tests together.

I have heard of a time when women studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) was frowned upon. They were ignored by their peers and were not taken seriously.

Boy, how times have changed.

But unfortunately, there is still a large gender gap in the physical sciences. Although women are considered equals, enrollment numbers, particularly in Engineering, are still dominated by males. Recruiting programs have been set up to try and get more women into Engineering (although being the only girl in a class full of engineers probably has its advantages in terms of attention received). And while the number of women studying physics is climbing, it is climbing slowly.

So what is the solution? How do we get more women interested in science and technology?

I think a big part of it will be letting young girls know that its OK to like science. There are probably a huge number of girls who would rather play with chemistry sets than barbie dolls, but feel strange doing so; especially when its only the boys playing with toys like that.

While I have never been a girl myself (though I was called one repeatedly in elementary school), I imagine its not easy for girls interested in science to grow up in a culture of many girls who don’t.  Even though we have come a long way in terms of equality, I think STEM still has a stigma as being for “Boys Only”.

So how do we get the word out that science is for everybody? The internet is a great resource that, up until a decade or so ago, was not available.

For example, a dear friend of mine from University has a blog called Technolochick. This is a site written by women for women who are interested in technology. Its a great idea for a blog and you should really check it out.

Celebrity involvement never hurts either. Amy Poehler, SNL alumnus and star of ‘Parks and Recreation‘, currently helps run a website called ‘Smart Girls at the Party‘  which takes an entertaining approach to encourage girls to follow their passions in STEM.

So ladies, don’t be shy. If you love science, say so! If you want to study it, do so!

And even though I considered all those in my class as equals, if one of the girls batted her eyes at me, I was probably more likely to give her my answers to the homework problems.

So you have that going for you as well.