We’ve done the math and, yes, we women have it in us
March 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
A while back, I was given the task of teaching a Grade 12 remedial class in physics. Since the failure rate always hovered around 50 per cent, I was told to expect the same. Besides, most of the incoming students had failed high-school physics and thus were expected to do so again. I refused to accept this cynical outlook.
On the first day, I told the students: Attend all lectures, complete all assignments and tests, and you will be guaranteed a passing grade. Hard work will be rewarded. Having taught remedial courses in chemistry and math, I knew the key was to make the subject matter relevant to everyday life.
Isaac Newton’s equations of motion made more sense when used to calculate the braking distance of a speeding Mazda RX-7 (or the distance a human body would be thrown without a seatbelt). Gustav Kirchhoff’s laws of circuits were plain to see when I almost electrocuted myself during a lab class. X-rays and camera filters were a natural segue into light scattering and polarization. By the end of the course, students had analyzed an MIT article on airport-screening machines based on costs, energy efficiency and civil liberties. Their assignment: “You’re the airport manager. You decide which machine is the best purchase.” Intelligent, nuanced arguments buttressed each student’s conclusion. In the end, only one constant no-show failed.
The key ingredient to their success: confidence. Why think students don’t have it in them to understand physics? Why imprison them to the past? Before parting ways, I advised: Never believe you can’t tackle a challenge.
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