Princesses, Cosmo and Art: Alternative Approaches to Physics Pedagogy

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Much has been written on the alternatives to the mystical physics pedagogy paradigm. Serious feminist scholars have critiqued, provided new examples and thought this problem out very thoroughly. However, despite this body of literature, at least one professor at a women's college believes that innovation in upper level physics courses is impossible without an overall culture change throughout all schools. Is it really true that women cannot succeed in physics without following archaic lecture and recitation pedagogical methods? Are modern curricular innovations, common in other disciplines, incompatible with masculine, sophisticated physics? This paper will present several descriptions of what new pedagogies designed especially for women might look like. Keep in mind that these are meant to be humorous. I am interested in exploring stereotypes of women-specific curricula. Hopefully, the absurdity of these approaches will prove the absurdity of the claim that innovative pedagogical methods are impossible. It is possible that a few of the suggestions may be useful, but doubtful. The innovations that scholars have suggested for women and minorities in physics are not groundbreaking. Indeed, the claim that minority-friendly methods cannot be implemented is as offensive as many of the suggestions outlined in this paper.

I. Introduction

The first thing to understand about women is that they are bad at science. Women do not naturally want to work in the sciences. Women are less likely to be interested in mechanical things, preferring feminine, soft objects. Anyone who has had a child or been around them knows that little girls like pink and dolls, while little boys naturally gravitate to guns and soldier toys. Given this widely accepted information, the goal of science pedagogy is to trick women into doing something against their nature. Some people may question the idea of turning women away from their biological yearnings. However, sometimes women are needed in science. Most lab technicians and many nontenured physics professors are women. Some women are even needed in fields that are women specific, like obstetrics and gynecology. It is natural that women would want other women to take care of their feminine needs. There have been some arguments that having more women in the sciences will improve the quality of the academic work and research occurring in science today. But, aside from the occasional Marie Curie anomaly, one should not expect women to contribute greatly to scientific endeavors. Anyone who thinks otherwise should look at the list of Nobel laureates. If women were any good at physics, more of them would have been acknowledged. However, the contributions of wives that have supported their scientist husbands throughout must not be forgotten.

No, the goal of teaching science to women is not the nurturing of genius. The instructor who begins with that assumption is bound to be disappointed. Rather, it is general education and the cultivation of future scientific assistants. Given that goal, we suggest several recommended approaches to reaching the female audience. Keep in mind that these methods are not appropriate for upper level courses. Any serious science scholar can only learn in one way, the same way that has been used for centuries by such noted minds as Einstein. Any women worthy of becoming a real scientist can and must learn to behave like the rest of us.

II. Fairy Princess Physics

Princess Physics will be a course designed specifically for kindergarten aged girls and below. Modeled after contemporary “princess parties” and “heiress parties”, this course will be taught within the confines of an extracurricular classroom setting. The girls will spend the first part of the class dressing up in frilly princess dresses and tiaras. However, these dresses will be white and button in the front. Therefore, we will call them their “lab gowns” instead of “lab coats.” The tiaras will also have lab goggle attachments. This dress up will teach the girls that it's possible to be in science without losing all the femininity that makes her special. The subject matter covered will be primarily mechanics. There will be no discussion of mathematics. Instead, girls will be given glitter crayons. They will use these crayon to color in physics coloring books. The books will have images such as the faces and homes of famous physicists. Every once in a while, the book will have a page that is an enlarged physics formula. The girls will enjoy coloring in the numbers and especially the greek letters. What better way for someone to learn to recognize a theta?

Each teacher does not need to be certified in any way. Rather, she will follow instruction books. Instead of teaching classical lessons, the teachers will teach Newtonian mechanics using fairy tales. They will, for example, break eggs and discuss how much force would have been required to crack Humpty Dumpty. Then, the boys from the other section will break the eggs for them, while the girls dutifully measure the force of impact recorded. Another sample lesson in this classroom is the concepts of fluid physics. How would Jasmine's flying carpet really work? This can be explored by finger painting a princess on a flying carpet while watching the boys running with cloth, trying to get it to soar. And what would it take for a mermaid to swim? The girls can compare the mobility of a Barbie Ariel doll in water to that of a live fish. Of course, the girls would not actually touch the live fish. Since they will be wearing lab gowns, they won't be able to get themselves dirty. Instead, the boys in the class will don swim trunks and flippers of different sizes to try things out. During this time, when the boys are swimming, the girls will be taking observations on the effects of the different sizes of flippers so that the boys can later analyze the results.

Probably, the most popular curricular component will be the pink unit. In this unit, the girls will learn about friction and the way gravity interacts on an inclined plane by rolling not just any matchbox cars, but pink minivans, down a hill. This lesson again will ensure that girls will like the toys they play with because they are pink and something that a mom would drive. The girls will only be responsible for dropping the cars. The boys will measure the incline and the incoming velocity. The boys will also use the Newtonian equations the girls colored to calculate which minivan is fastest and the friction of the plane. This exercise is also an excellent example of employing teamwork. Both the girls and boys will have contributed equally to the result.

III. Cosmo Physics

Cosmo physics is an exciting and new approach to teaching middle and high schoolers about physics. Its central premise is this: girls at this age are not interested in their studies. No, not at all. What these girls are really interested in is boys. Therefore, we have created Cosmo Physics, a physics that focuses not on the abstract concepts so confusing to teenage girls, but to something they are naturally meant to understand: men. That is correct. Cosmo's focus, taking its name and style from the magazine of the same title, is on relationships. Instead of thinking about dry formulas and mechanical experiments, this course will feel more like a gossip circle.

“Did you know that Einstein married his cousin, Susie?”

“No Way!”

Thus begins one of these classes. We will use historical information about the love lives of such hot shots as Leibniz, Newtown, Heisenberg, et al. For final projects, girls would be required to create a sort of shrine, similar to what exists in many girls' lockers for contemporary musicians. Physics would be mentioned as it pertains to the physicist's personal life. Did he achieve that award only after divorcing his wife? Write it down and study it for the test.

By implementing the natural social setting of the adolescent girl, we will be able to make a subject that she has no need for seem interesting for her. Here, again, we are achieving the goal of tricking the girl into thinking she likes physics. Of course, when she gets to upper level physics, she will quickly learn that what she thought was physics was not enough for an elite career in it. But, perhaps she will be able to achieve a good position in a lab. It's so hard to find help these days.

Some may question the emphasis on physicists' relationships, saying that not enough hard physics would be learnt. I counter that objection with another one. Would it be great to teach women to love physics? A good physicist need a strong life partner. Scientists wives can enable the work of men who may not otherwise be able to complete their work. A course like this could not only introduce the main male heroes of physics to young women not only as the hyper intelligent men they were, but also as a goal for a husband. All in all, Cosmo physics is a worthy pedagogical consideration.

IV. Physics as Art

Fine arts appears to be an extremely useful model for physics pedagogy. After all, there are many similarities between the way the two disciplines are perceived in society. The most successful artists of the fine arts are men. Indeed, there are few well known male artists before recent times. Women could, of course, be the subjects of art, but not creators. In the same way now, women are excellent lab technicians, but would not get their name on a journal article printed up on her research, the PI would. Still, despite a history of a women-less discipline, the fine arts have grown to include women as well. Even despite the fact that female artists find it increasingly more difficult to gain exposure or a living than male artists, women flock to the arts. Look at any high school visual arts program. The majority of students will almost always be female. Why is that? The only answer that pertains to us is this: they are better at tricking their students. So, let us steal their methods.

The first step in attracting women to the physics, if we follow the arts model, is to encourage our male physics majors to dress more trendily, with eyeliner and unnaturally colored hair, and attractively. Their presence will create a physics subculture much preferable to the Trekkie representation we have today. Also, fine arts has the benefit of drawing on pleasurable child experiences such as coloring and sidewalk chalking with friends. We will use these same tools that arts educators do. Illustrating parabolic motion by her own sweeping brush stroke will be more fun for the student than watching an instructor due the same thing on a chalkboard. Making mobiles of the solar system has been a standard practice in physics for years. Why not a diorama of a particle accelerator? Or a clay representation of an atom's structure? A physics class composed entirely of art projects would teach girls a great deal about physics without them even knowing it AND while making them think that they are just doing the arts and crafts they are used to.

VI. Cartoon Physics

Cartoon Physics would use television based cartoon to illustrate physical concepts and, oh wait. That already exists.1 Never mind, girls don't like comic book superheroes anyway.

VII. Conclusion

Each of these methods, fairy princess, cosmo and art physics, offer appropriate instruction for women scientists. Unless of course, women really are as variable in their interests and abilities as men are. In this case, these approaches may very well not apply. But since we live in a world where little girls play with dolls and little boys play with trucks, we think that these solutions are extremely necessary.

1James Kakalio. The Physics of Superheroes. Gotham, New York: 2005.


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