The problem James Trefil and Sarah Swartz address centers around learning the definitions of terms to which students, expressly female students in this case, might not previously have been exposed. Ignorance is no sin, but the definitions of “pile driver” and “I-beam” are readily found by asking a fellow student or referring to a dictionary. And exposing the real-world, everyday applications of physics concepts through problem sets is done not to confuse students but to illustrate the universality of the principles of physics. Trefil and Swartz have pitted themselves against authors who presumably selected or designed those problems not as impediments but as aids to learning basic physics. The success of one approach versus another rests to a large extent with the student.
Students today do not labor under the disadvantages that I faced in the 1930s and early 1940s. My Russian immigrant parents had no formal education and could offer no help with school work. Learning was fun for me, but I worked hard to achieve it. Textbooks then had few of the creative graphics and learning aids found in current ones.
But such aids are of little use if students, whether in K–12 or college, don’t or can’t use them. The problem, then, is learning how to learn before becoming irreversibly habituated to asking others or entirely dependent on the internet. As a substitute K–12 teacher for several years following my retirement, I devoted as much time and attention as my students tolerated to acquainting them with available resources and how to make the best use of them.
A student’s first exposure to an idea sets a long-lasting tone in the understanding and use of that idea. Early misconceptions can be difficult to dislodge, and the selection of problems and problem sets does well, along with lectures, to help ensure that such misconceptions do not take root. In light of that challenge, the use of unfamiliar terms that are readily found in dictionaries strikes me as a trivial impediment at most.
Teachers, though essential, best function as facilitators. Problem sets likewise serve as facilitators. The major part of the learning process resides in the students, male or female. Help them by all means. Understand—and, if necessary, help them unlearn—their home-, school-, and street-derived intellectual baggage. But, with due allowance for special circumstances, do not relieve them, especially those in higher education, of responsibility for their own education.
I have no definitive answer for whether the points I raise here relate to the dearth of female bachelor-level physicists. Whatever the causes of the gender gap among undergraduate physics majors may be, I wish the physics community well in narrowing it.
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