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    Even a small effort up front can boost the abilities and confidence of girls as they anticipate taking challenging science courses.

    A long-running summer program at Rice University and elsewhere that trains high school girls in basic physics concepts has proven successful in helping them thrive when they take on full courses the next year.

    When leaders of Rice’s two-week day camp looked at similar programs beyond Houston, they found participants scored 3% better in high school physics than their counterparts who did not have the equivalent summer experience.

    “That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s really hard to move the needle on student outcomes, so 3% is significant,” said Carolyn Nichol, an assistant research professor in the Department of Chemistry and director of the Rice Office of STEM Engagement (R-STEM).

    The results are detailed in an open-access study by Nichol, lead author Ericka Lawton, and co-authors Carrie Obenland and Matthew Cushing of R-STEM and Christopher Barr of the Rice Office of Research in the American Physics Society journal Physical Review Physics Education Research.

    The study is one of two led and recently released by Nichol. The other analyzes the effect of long-term professional development for teachers in engineering education. That study by Nichol, lead author Christina Crawford of R-STEM and co-author Obenland appears in the Journal of STEM Outreach.

    The high school study collected years’ worth of generalized data from participating districts for students who studied chemistry but did not participate in a camp, and the same data for those who did. That gave researchers a baseline to compare results for the same set of students after they all took high school physics.

    “There wasn’t a self-selection bias where people could say, ‘Oh, girls who go to a physics camp in June already like physics,'” she said, noting Rice and its counterparts typically recruit students from underserved schools. “The girls who were part of the study were matched so their chemistry scores were the same. We didn’t base this on girls who were already accelerating in science.”

    The study was based on a philanthropic effort by Rice alumna and trustee Wanda Gass ’78, an engineer who helped develop the first commercially viable digital signal processor during her career at Texas Instruments. She subsequently founded the nonprofit Design Connect Create to encourage girls to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) studies.

    Design Connect Create runs summer camps for multiple school districts across Texas. Nichol said the study is great validation for the physics program that will ideally lead to similar courses in other science-oriented topics.

    “When I talk to these girls at Rice, and often they really don’t want to be here,” she said. “They’re very quiet at the start because for the most part, they are being forced to come by their parents. But by the end, they form really wonderful bonds with the other girls. Within two weeks, they are sharing skills and become trusting of each other.

    “I think that’s the real reason they go back and are successful in physics,” Nichol said. “They just get this confidence that they can do it.”

    The second study sought to show the value of professional development for teachers whose coursework touches on engineering topics but who are not, themselves, engineers. The researchers followed up with teachers who took the 45-hour graduate level course at Rice in 2018 and 2019 to see how they incorporated engineering into their classrooms.

    The study found that, based on a set of attributes for adult self-motivation, teachers showed significant improvement in overall self-efficacy—the belief in their own ability to succeed—in engineering instruction.

    “I’m an engineer because my dad was an engineer,” said Nichol, who has a doctorate in chemical engineering. “We want engineering in K-12 classrooms because a lot of kids don’t have role models, and we want them to understand that an engineer is somebody who designs and creates new things.”

    She said the program that best exemplifies what Rice offers is the NanoEnvironmental Engineering for Teachers course, which gives participants rigorous hands-on experience working on water sustainability projects. The course, a collaboration with the Rice-based and National Science Foundation-backed Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment Center, is also offered at Arizona State and the University of Texas at El Paso.

    Lawton is associate director for educational leadership and STEM initiatives, Obenland is a lecturer and associate director for outreach and research, Crawford is associate director for science and engineering and Cushing is executive director of R-STEM. Barr is director of assessment and evaluation of STEM programs in the Office of Research.More information: Ericka Lawton et al, Improving high school physics outcomes for young women, Physical Review Physics Education Research (2021). DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevPhysEducRes.17.010111

    Citation: Physics camp has proven benefits for high school girls (2021, March 6) retrieved 6 March 2021 from

    This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

    Study finds no link between gender and physics course performance

    A new data-driven study from Texas A&M University casts serious doubt on the stereotype that male students perform better than female students in science—specifically, physics.

    A team of researchers in the Department of Physics and Astronomy analyzed both the midterm exam scores and final grades of more than 10,000 Texas A&M students enrolled in four introductory physics courses across more than a decade, finding no evidence that male students consistently outperform female students in these courses.

    The work was led by Texas A&M physicist and Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence Tatiana Erukhimova.

    With help of nearly two dozen departmental colleagues, the Texas A&M team built a database reflecting the complete introductory physics educational spectrum: the calculus-based course sequence primarily taken by engineering and physics majors as well as the algebra-based course sequence typically taken by life sciences and premed majors. Their final analysis shows that exam performance and final letter grades are largely independent of student gender—results which Erukhimova says show promise in ending gender stereotypes that negatively impact so many female students in STEM.

    “There is no consistent trend on male students outperforming female students,” Erukhimova said. “Our study also provides new knowledge regarding whether statistically significant differences based on gender occurred on each exam for four introductory physics courses as the semesters were progressing—an area that has not previously been studied, at least not for such a large data set and over a long period of time.”

    When differences in final letter grades for a course were observed, there were no persistent differences across that course’s exams, she said. Conversely, when researchers found differences on exams within a course, they observed no differences for final letter grades in that course. In algebra-based mechanics, they found that female students outperformed male students by a small but statistically significant margin.

    Their findings were published recently in the American Physical Society journal Physical Review Physics Education Research and highlighted in a related Physics Magazine News and Commentary feature.

    Prior to the team’s study and others similar to it, Erukhimova says it has been an open question as to whether significant differences between male and female students could show up on particular exams but remain slight enough so as not to affect final course grades. For the past 25 years, the physics education profession has relied on inventory tests—optional surveys intended to assess conceptual understanding and retention of key physics concepts—to answer that question, effectively substantiating the argument for gender differences in student performance by default because men tend to score higher on them.

    “In the field of physics education research, the majority of existing studies report a persistent gender gap with males performing significantly better than females on introductory mechanics concept inventory assessments, such as the Force Concept Inventory,” Erukhimova said. “The results of prior studies on the gendered differences in student performance based on course grades and examinations are less consistent. While a number of studies indicate that male students outperform female students on the exams and course grades, other groups found no significant gendered difference in student performance.”

    The team applied multiple statistical analyses to the course-level data they collected to study whether there were performance differences based on student gender. To see how their findings aligned with student perceptions, they also took a snapshot of the students’ feelings about course performance, inclusion and contributions using a short anonymous questionnaire distributed to 1,600 students in fall 2019.

    “Responses indicated that female students had lower perception of their performance than their male classmates,” Erukhimova said. “The only class where female students perceived their performance as equal to their male classmates was algebra-based mechanics, in which females typically outperform males. Additionally, we found that although male and female students may feel differently regarding their performance and in-class contributions, they feel equally included in class.”

    Although the team’s study represents clear progress to Erukhimova, she acknowledges it comes with its own limitations—the most significant being that it relies solely on course-level data collected from faculty and does not analyze the possible impact of non-academic factors on student performance. In the future, she says the team would like to connect as much of their data set as possible to university-level records to see how prior preparation, such as SAT scores, affects these results.

    “We believe that all students should have equal opportunities and chances for success in physics,” Erukhimova said. “The results of this work may help with fighting the gender stereotype threat that negatively impacts so many female students. By contributing to the body of knowledge about how gender relates to student performance, we hope that our work, which would not have been possible without our colleagues’ data, can be another step in dismantling the preconceived notion of a societal bias based on gender in physics.”More information: Matthew Dew et al, Gendered performance differences in introductory physics: A study from a large land-grant university, Physical Review Physics Education Research (2021). DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevPhysEducRes.17.010106

    Citation: Study finds no link between gender and physics course performance (2021, March 5) retrieved 6 March 2021 from

    This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

    Physics in the pandemic: ‘I took inspiration from the healthcare sector and brought in a therapist for my lab’

    Andrea Armani is a chemical engineering and materials science professor at the University of Southern California, US. This post is part of a series on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the personal and professional lives of physicists around the world. If you’d like to share your own perspective, please contact us at

    Four students standing in front of a fume cupboard in a laboratory, looking at a lab notebook, as Andrea Armani speaks with them

    Collaborative environment Andrea Armani (right) and members of her research group in their lab before the pandemic. (Courtesy: Andrea Armani)

    As the leader of a materials science and engineering laboratory, my office – situated in the middle of a sea of experimental spaces, white boards, and group member desks – was rarely quiet before the pandemic. The murmurs of derivations from the white boards and the swinging of the doors to our optics and synthetic chemistry labs provided a constant background hum. And although I am trained as a physicist, the members of my group come from numerous scientific and engineering backgrounds, creating a rich, dynamic research environment.

    During the past year, these noises and interactions have vaporized. As I work from the isolation of home while my group members perform research (at significantly reduced capacity) in the lab, our entire research environment and lab culture have been transformed. New synthetic pathways no longer decorate the wall outside my office door, and students no longer rush into my office to show me their latest laser threshold data. But the daily coffee breaks and walks also stopped. More recently, the more significant celebratory milestones, like graduation and holiday parties, have been postponed. And while this stark, sudden shift had a huge and immediate impact on productivity, it also led to a slow, continued erosion of mental health.Seeking practical solutions

    Universities are trying a wide range of strategies to address this erosion, some of which are more successful than others. Loneliness is already a challenge for science and engineering students for many reasons, including struggles with imposter syndrome, issues with advisor(s) and being unable to travel home due to visa restrictions. COVID-19 is amplifying these issues, making it more important than ever to try to find practical solutions.

    In my case, I took inspiration from the healthcare sector and decided to bring in a mental health therapist to lead a weekly discussion group for my lab. There were several practical challenges associated with this decision, including finding someone who is skilled in and willing to work with the STEM/education sector (and PhD students specifically), paying that person and getting student buy-in.

    To overcome the first hurdle, I reached out to my personal network as well as a range of potential contacts on social media (yes, I said social media). Through them, I found a person who had previously run similar groups. As far as payment, I paid “out of pocket”, meaning I paid them directly. As a principal investigator, I value my students’ health and well-being, and I feel it is my responsibility to ensure their success. To get student buy-in, I dedicated workday time to the discussion group to emphasize that I believed it was important. Although attending the group was completely optional, I explained why I felt group sessions and the group format were a good approach and why I valued therapy, as part of an attempt to normalize it.Specialized support

    We are now finishing our second month of these sessions, and when I asked my group if they wanted to continue, the answer was a resounding “yes” for several reasons. Although the university does offer similar groups, they are typically attended by students from many disciplines. As a result, the therapists are not trained in engineering-specific challenges, and the discussants are not all engineers. The result is that the students end up feeling even more isolated than they already were.

    Physics in the pandemic: ‘Our mission was to include young nuclear physicists wherever they were in the world’

    While I do not attend our group’s sessions, I know that my group members discuss a wide range of topics, both pandemic-related and otherwise. Given the pressure that many of them are feeling, it is very important to provide them a place to express their concerns related to screening/qualifying exams, research and academic progress, housing and finances, and family. And this environment needs to be with their colleagues who can empathize with and support them, as well as with a therapist who can lead a constructive discussion. I also encouraged my students to use the therapist to alert me to any concerns they have with the university or with me that they do not feel comfortable bringing to my attention directly. In other words, the therapist can act as their advocate. This advocacy role (as well as my lack of experience in psychology) is one reason why I decided not to lead these groups myself.

    Creating this resource for my group has presented many challenges, but I am hopeful that the school of engineering will continue the initiative post-pandemic. To ensure our students’ academic and research success, it is critical to care for both their mental and physical health. This requires engaging the students to provide them with the resources they need, not the resources we think they need.

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