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Originally published Sunday, September 14, 2014 at 5:12 PM

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Guest: What keeps girls from studying physics and STEM

What keeps girls from pursuing STEM fields, according to guest columnist Rachel E. Scherr.

Special to The Times


EVERY student returning to school this fall should have the opportunity to prepare for the rapidly growing job opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math — also known as STEM. But many students, especially women and underrepresented minorities, needlessly opt out — or are shut out — of discovering a passion or talent for one of these subjects.

Physics is among the least diverse of the sciences, with only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees going to women and fewer than 10 percent to underrepresented minorities. The field needs to catch up to biology and chemistry, which have almost closed the gender gap at the undergraduate level.

At the graduate-study level, all three sciences fail to attract enough women students. Examinations for graduate school are poor at selecting the most capable students and severely restrict the flow of women and minorities into the sciences, a Nature journal article reported.

According to the 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators report by the National Science Foundation, women comprised a paltry 28 percent of workers in science and engineering occupations in 2010. Failing to support these students in the sciences shortchanges the students, the field of science and the public that benefits from scientific advancement.

I am a physicist, but I almost dropped out of my first physics class in high school. I had fallen in love with physics while working as a science museum docent, where I learned the simple principles behind beautiful and puzzling natural phenomena.

My advanced placement (AP) physics class, unfortunately, was about memorizing equations and applying them to specific contrived examples. I did not perform well on the midterm exam. The teacher advised me to drop the course, along with all the other girls in the class.

I stayed despite the teacher’s pressure, as the only girl in the class, and did well in the long run. I learned to love physics again in college, conducting original research with inspiring science professors who valued my presence in the scientific community. Physics professor Mary James at Reed College helped a lot by creating an active learning environment in her courses and teaching me that physics also needs “B” students.

Locally, the Pacific Northwest Girls Collaborative Project is doing its part by bringing together organizations in Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho and Washington to motivate girls to pursue STEM careers.

But there is so much more work to do. One key factor is federal funding for research. Federal funding is the main source of support for the kind of high-risk, high-reward investigations that sparked innovations such as the Internet, the MRI and GPS.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., serves on the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee and understands the connection. In her recently released report “Opportunity Outlook: A Path For Tackling All Our Deficits Responsibly” she states, “By supporting early stage basic research that the private sector might not otherwise undertake, federal investment in R&D [research and development] has played a critical role in encouraging innovation across a swath of industries.”

Murray can play a key role by continuing her support of federally funded scientific research. I encourage her to return to the vision set forth in the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 for science agencies to maintain the United States’ innovation edge throughout the world. Funding for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology is currently $3 billion less than Congress originally recommended.

In fact, since 2010, Congress has not even funded these agencies at levels that keep pace with inflation.

I’m now a senior research scientist at Seattle Pacific University, where I conduct research on effective physics teaching and learning. Modern instructional strategies that emphasize active learning increase student performance in science, engineering, and math, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.Underrepresented students might benefit the most from these strategies.

Educators need to change how physics is taught so that all students have access, whether they eventually pursue physics research, physics teaching or one of the many other job opportunities that depends on quality preparation in the sciences. Everyone stands to benefit.

Rachel E. Scherr is a senior research scientist at Seattle Pacific University, conducting research on the teaching and learning of physics.

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