Posted by Melissa on October 17, 2008
I’ve been participating in the Adopt-a-Physicist program, and I just got a great question from a student in one of the high school classes that adopted me. The question is, What is your favorite physics theory? I found that to be quite thought-provoking. Here was my off-the-cuff response:
“I think in terms of its fundamental beauty my favorite theory is Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory, in which 4 mathematical equations capture the essence of electricity and magnetism. This was the beginning of physicists’ efforts to try to find a few unifying principles for describing nature, which continues today. In addition, it was in considering Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory that Einstein got his inspiration to develop the theory of special relativity.”
Anyone else want to share their favorite physics theory? And can you explain why you like it at a level that is appropriate for a high school student just starting physics?
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Posted by Melissa on October 13, 2008
One of the simple pleasures for me this year has been finding the time in the evening to read books. Recently I’ve read two different books that I’ve found rather interesting: Elizabeth Aries’ Race and Class Matter at an Elite College and Linda Sax’s The Gender Gap in College: Maximizing the Developmental Potential of Women and Men. Both explore differing student experiences and outcomes based on race, class, and gender. Aries’ study qualitatively explores students during their first year at Amherst College. Sax’s study is a compilation of survey results of 17,000 students at 204 different institutions. The data is from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program’s Freshman Survey in 1994, and the College Student Survey, a follow-up study in 1998. I may write about Aries’ book later, but here are three results from Sax’s work that caught my attention.
1) Both women and men majoring in fields such as the physical sciences, engineering, and computer science tend to become less interested in broader societal and cultural issues than when they entered college.
We are doing our students and society a disservice if science majors leave college less interested in societal and cultural issues than when they started. It’s important for science minded folks to remain engaged in societal issues both for the heath of science fields and of society at large, especially when you consider the growing importance of science related issues like public health, responsible development, and alternative energy. I can’t say this result was surprising to me, particularly based on conversations I have had with students when I ask them to do assignments exploring the connection between the topics we are covering in intermediate level physics classes and the broader public sphere.
2) Men working with faculty on research become less supportive of traditional gender roles, but women who work with faculty on research become more committed to traditional gender roles. (Here support of traditional gender roles is identified through student agreement with the statement that “the activities of married women are best confined to home and family”.)
I find this interesting. Sciencewoman has already discussed this on her blog, and my thoughts are very similar to hers. Do faculty subconsciously treat male and female students differently, or do female students pick up on the lack of balance that many faculty exhibit in their lives and then change their views accordingly?
3) Schools with a larger percentage of female faculty are often thought to provide positive role models and benefits to female students, but male students actually experience more developmental benefits than female students at institutions where there are a higher percentage of female faculty.
As Sax notes in the book, her results provide a broad overview and point to many areas where follow-up research needs to be done. Nevertheless, it’s got me thinking about the importance of intangibles in this enterprise called higher education.
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