Thursday night, I needed to work late, so rather than upset the dog by going home for dinner, and then leaving, I went for sushi at a local restaurant. I had a very pleasant meal, which I spent reading through the first few chapters of the textbook I plan to use for my Quantum Optics class next term (to make sure it will work for my purposes), and listening to the woman at the table next to me talk to her kids (ages 7 and 9, and cutely overactive).
Eventually, the kids wandered off to go pester the sushi chef (they’re apparently regulars), and their mother asked me “What is it you’re reading that’s so engrossing?” I explained that it was a textbook for my class next term, and she asked what I teach.
When I said “Physics,” she made The Face. “Oh, I hated that when I took it in high school.”
I’m sure this probably happens to people in other sciences as well (if the attitudes of British schoolchildren are any guide…), but I think The Face is especially bad for physics. For whatever reason, physics seems to be a particularly unpleasant experience for a great many people, all of whom later feel compelled to share their bad experiences with any physicists they happen to meet.
Interestingly, earlier that day, we had heard a presentation from a visiting speaker about physics education research. It was mostly pretty standard stuff, talking up the benefits of “active engagement” classes, and Peer Instruction and all that sort of thing. Mixed in there, though, was a bit I hadn’t heard before, regarding student expectations and attitudes towards science.
The basic results she mentioned are pretty much the same as this paper from the physics education research group at Maryland. The authors constructed a survey designed to measure student attitudes toward physics, based on whether they agreed or disagreed with various statements:
#1: All I need to do to understand most of the basic ideas in this course is just read the text, work most of the problems, and/or pay close attention in class.
#14:. Learning physics is a matter of acquiring new knowledge that is specifically located in the laws, principles, and equations given in the textbook and in class.
#4: “Problem solving” in physics basically means matching problems with facts or equations and then substituting values to get a number.
#19: The most crucial thing in solving a physics problem is finding the right equation to use.
(More after the cut…)
The responses were deemed “favorable” or “unfavorable” based on whether they agreed with the responses of a calibration group of experts (professional physicists and educators). These responses were used to generate graphs of favorable vs. unfavorable responses, like the one at left (click for a slightly larger version). The blue cross in the upper left represents the average of the “expert” responses (89% “favorable” overall), while the other symbols represent introductory classes at various institutions.
The striking thing about this is that the green symbols are from a pre-test, while the red symbols are the same sets of students taking the test again after one semester of college physics. For every class, at every type of institution studied, the red points are farther from the “expert” responses than the green points. College physics classes, it seems, make students take a less favorable view of the subject.
The data in that paper are kind of old, but according to Thursday’s speaker, the trend continues today. And even the “active engagement” classes that produce stellar results on tests of conceptual learning show the same trend: on average, the student responses become less favorable. The very best classes apparently manage to keep the students about where they started, but nobody has yet figured out how to move a whole class in the direction of the “experts.” (Obviously, some small fraction of those students must move toward the “expert” responses, because some small fraction of them will go on to become physicists…)
This probably goes a long way toward explaining the reaction of the woman at dinner (I’m not singling her out because her reaction was particularly remarkable– I’ve had hundreds of people make The Face at me over the years. She just happened to do it on the same day as an interesting talk…). If people are leaving the intro classes with a lower opinion of physics than they entered with, it’s no surprise that people in restaurants make faces when I tell them what I do (I have a hard time avoiding a grimace when I meet literary theorists, after all). It also probably explains why something like three percent of students taking introductory physics ever take another class in the subject.
It’s also a large part of the reason why I don’t get all that worked up over the various “women in physics” threads that come around again and again. While the question of why our field is apparently unattractive to women is an important one, it’s a distant second to the question of why our field is so singularly unappealing to, well everybody. If the data showed that men have an overwhelmingly positive attitude toward physics, and women have a negative view, then the gender issue would be a major concern, but that’s not what we see. Nobody likes us– as I said above, the number of students who take physics beyond the introductory level is something like 3% (or at least that’s the factoid I remember from an AAPT workshop a couple of years ago). And the people who make The Face when hearing about my job come in all sizes, shapes, and genders.
I suspect that if we were to figure out why the introductory classes are so unsuccessful at conveying a correct impression of what we do, that would go a long way toward identifying the causes of the gender imbalance (at least, those that are under the control of physicists at the college level), and we’d be in a better position to do something about it. And then maybe I’d see an occasional happy face when I tell people what I do.