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The Goals of Physics for Everyone

The research of Rosser (1990) and Seymour and Hewitt (1997) suggests that one way to make introductory physics more welcoming to women and members of minority groups is to broaden the context in which we set the ideas—to include more discussion of social and economic contributions, or the applications of physic to solving environmental problems. We can also make efforts to include the contributions of women to physics. Perhaps the most effective way to broaden the context of physics for students is to redesign problems. Homework assignments are mostly problems, so students spend much of their study time thinking about and working physics problems. If we assign problems that are set in a variety of contexts, we emphasize the universal applicability of the laws of physics in a way that should attract a broader range of students.

It may simply be that the homogeneity of the physics community is self-perpetuating. Physicists believe that the laws of physics are universally applicable, but the situations to which we apply them reflect our interests—because most physicists are men, the physics curriculum has been developed primarily, though not deliberately, to interest male students. Women are less interested in the examples and contexts that are emphasized in introductory physics. The military examples have largely disappeared from textbooks, but they have been replaced by colliding hockey pucks, baseballs, and other sports examples. An improvement, but still a field where male participation greatly outnumbers women’s. Seymour and Hewitt also claim that women are attracted to science for more altruistic motives than white men. The emphasis on the “grand ideas” of physics is attractive to traditional students, but we may attract more non-traditional students by emphasizing the applications of physics to social and environmental problems.

As we strive to make physics more female-friendly, it is important to remember that not all women are white, middle-class Americans. It is important to include race, class, and ethnicity in our search for new contexts.

The goal of Physics for Everyone is to develop a complete set of problems that cover all the topics of introductory physics, but emphasize non-traditional topics. Our problems are designed for a calculus-based introductory physics course, but many are adaptable to an algebra-based high school or college course. They can be used in a traditional lecture-based course or one that emphasizes active learning. It is our hope that they will be a resource for faculty wanting to use problems that broaden the context of introductory physics. They may also be useful for students who are looking for interesting and challenging problems. The guidelines we have developed for Physics for Everyone are available at Guidelines. These are based on our reading of the literature on feminist pedagogy in science, our review of many traditional and innovative introductory physics textbooks, and our own experience as women in physics.

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Posted on 8/1/05

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