Girls, maths and physical sciences

Eric Fairfield fairfiel at
Wed Mar 27 12:37:14 EST 1996

Ms. S.J. Rickard wrote:
> When making my selection of subjects to study at both the age of 16 and 18
> I avoided maths and physics like the plague for a simple reason. I saw
> them as very, very boring. I only studied chemistry because I had to in
> order to get anywhere in biology. Biology was the only science that
> really grabbed me and my class was predominantly female, whereas my
> chemistry class was mostly male (as was physics). My point is this (and
> it may vary from school to school or country to country),fewer girls are
> interested in maths/physics/chemistry because by their nature ( and
> usually the way they are taught) they are dry and tedious. It's not that
> boys don't also think they are boring (because in my year, believe me
> they did!) but boys have more of a social pressure to take the more
> physical sciences and maths. Girls aren't expexted to take such subjects,
> don't feel obliged to study them for the sake of it and
> plump for more interesting things. In my experience a lot of students only
> took
> maths/chemistry and physics because it was essential for a career e.g.
> medicine, not because they found them interesting or stimulating. Most
> people in my class took biology because it interested them and they
> generally WANTED to do it, not HAD to do it.
> If we are to get more girls into science then we have to make science
> itself more interesting and accesible to both sexes. In Britain the
> science subjects are taught in a dry and uninspiring way and the syllabus
> tends to be limited (unless things have changed in the last 5 years).
> I still find chemistry/maths/physics tedious to the extreme and I am very
> glad that I never felt pressured into taking them!!!! I will now be
> flamed to death by lurking physicists and chemists, go ahead and
> shoot...make my day!!!!!
> Just a couple of pennies worth.
> SarahSarah,

I started out studying math, physics and chemistry.  Later I moved into 
biochemistry including the Human Genome Program in the U.S.  The 
controlling factor in all of this was good teachers and mentors.  
Basically I followed the path of fun problems and good people. 

Now I am trying to produce very rapid sensitive instruments, some of 
which detect biological molecules.

For my daughter, who is in seventh grade, and her friends, I try to teach 
science not as a series of dry topics but as intriguing puzzles to be 
figured out.

We have done:
What happens when you leave bread in a glass of water?
How can you make an image of a flying plane and background on a computer 
Why do peppers 'taste' hot?
What is critical in getting a car engine to work efficiently?
When cows were imported to Australia, what was the ecological mistake and
how did dung beetles help?
How smart are ants really?  Can they tell where they are going?
What part of card tricks is trickery and what part is statistics?

With the why do peppers tast hot puzzle, my daughter and her friend 
assumed that taste buds sensed the 'hot taste.'  I asked how they tested 
this hypothesis.  They started doing experiments to see whether you could 
'taste' hot where there were no taste buds.  Rapidly, they found out that 
'hot' is sensed by pain receptors (they even found a study on the WWW in 
which topical pain killers block the hot taste) and not by taste buds.  
You can taste hot on the back of your hand.

In each of these, we concentrate on understanding the problem and then on 
solving it in a clear logical way that will withstand questioning by 
others.  To me this clear understanding of the problem and its solution 
is critical whether the problem is in biology, chemistry, math or 
interpersonal relations.  

Many confusions, especially in rapidly developing fields such as parts of 
biology, have come from an incomplete understanding of the problem or its 
solution on the part of the people who are talking about it.

Basically, we have fun while we figure out how the world works.  Much of 
math and physics shows up in these puzzles not as dry things to learn but 
as shorthand ways to remember what we found out and to predict the 
answers to other puzzles.

I would appreciate any comments on this approach.  Suggestions, 
criticisms, even outright laughter would be fine.

In the mean time, she and I are trying to learn more about what happens 
to eyes as you get older.  We hope that some of the changes are 
reversible.  We are having a good time.

Eric Fairfield

"I can levitate birds .....  No one cares."
Steven Wright

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