Faculty Team Exploring Ways to Encourage More Women to Enter Physics, Geological Sciences

GENESEO, N.Y. -- The disciplines of physics and geological sciences have traditionally not held high appeal among women, who seldom pursue careers in those areas. That may change thanks to a National Science Foundation grant awarded to a State University of New York at Geneseo faculty team who will examine ways of encouraging more female middle and high-school students to consider physics and geology.

Geneseo is collaborating with the Geneseo Central School District and four other surrounding districts for the "The Power of Physical Science (POPS)" project, with an award of $295,890 funded through the NSF Math and Science Partnership-Start Program. Also participating are the Dansville, Mount Morris, Pavilion and York school districts.

"Women are underrepresented in these disciplines and many pull away from the physical sciences before they reach college," said Kurt Fletcher, professor and chair of Geneseo's physics and astronomy department, who is leading the team. "Encouraging young women in middle- and high-school to study physics and geology is the first step."

Also on the study team are Dori Farthing and Amy Sheldon, both assistant professors of geological sciences, Katie Rommel-Esham, associate professor of education, and Randy French, a middle-school science teacher in the Geneseo Central School District.

"There is a disconnect between our middle- and high-school science curriculum and what geologists and physicists actually do," said French. "I think students often don't see relevance and we need to change that."

The POPS program will focus on developing a hands-on enrichment curriculum for small groups of students at each of the partner schools. The curriculum will focus on the interrelated and interdisciplinary issues of energy, climate change and new approaches to meeting the nation's energy needs while safeguarding the environment.

"Our idea is to impact these students through their teachers," said Rommel-Esham, who focuses on math and science methods in the Shear School of Education. "We plan to bring in teachers for workshops with the hope that they infuse excitement in their classrooms about these fields of study."

Geneseo senior physics major Sarah Muller says the prospect of being a woman physicist in a field still largely dominated by men is occasionally daunting but says support from family and from middle- and high-school teachers made a big difference.

"I find myself driven to prove to myself and to other young women that a scientific career is perfectly realistic despite gender, as long as the interest and dedication are there," says Muller.

The team's research will contribute to the literature on gender and science to enhance the physical science disciplines. They will monitor the impact of the project using surveys to ascertain interest in the fields before and after students are exposed to the enrichment curriculum.

See more on the project at Power of Physical Science .

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David Irwin
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