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Theses Doctoral

Feminist Physics Education: Deconstructed Physics and Students' Multiple Subjectivities

Jammula, Diane Crenshaw

Physics is one of the least diverse sciences; in the U.S. in 2010, only 21% of bachelors degrees in physics were awarded to women, 2.5% to African Americans, and 4% to Hispanic Americans (AIP, 2012). Though physics education reform efforts supporting interactive engagement have doubled students’ learning gains (Hake, 1998), gender and race gaps persist (Brewe et al., 2010; Kost, Pollock, & Finkelstein, 2009). When students’ subjectivities align with presentations of physics, they are more likely to develop positive physics identities (Hughes, 2001). However, both traditional and reformed physics classrooms may present physics singularly as abstract, elite, and rational (Carlone, 2004). Drawing from feminist science, I argue that binaries including abstract / concrete, elite / accessible, and rational / emotional are hierarchal and gendered, raced and classed. The words on the left define conventional physics and are associated with middle class white masculinity, while the words on the right are associated with femininity or other, and are often missing or delegitimized in physics education, as are females and minorities.
To conceptualize a feminist physics education, I deconstructed these binaries by including the words on the right as part of doing physics. I do not imply that women and men think differently, but that broadening notions of physics may allow a wider range of students to connect with the discipline. I used this conceptual framework to modify a popular reformed physics curriculum called Modeling Instruction (Hestenes, 1987). I taught this curriculum at an urban public college in an introductory physics course for non-science majors. Twenty-three students of diverse gender, race, ethnic, immigrant and class backgrounds enrolled. I conducted an ethnography of the classroom to learn how students negotiate their subjectivities to affiliate with or alienate from their perceptions of physics, and to understand how classroom experiences exacerbate or ameliorate differences in achievement, participation and feelings towards physics.
Findings show how students (dis)connect with physics in both stereotypical and atypical ways; for example, one student drew from a classed identity to reject physics (e.g. “working was always in my DNA, but school is never really for me”) and another student related his classed and gendered work as a mechanic to learn physics. Traditional aspects of the physics curriculum privileged discourse, performances, and epistemology associated with middle class white masculinity. The statement “I might nit pick it because I did it my way” is characteristic of competitive, assertive, self-interested discourse during problem presentations, taken up by male and female students. However, students engaged in other ways of doing physics that were personal, emotional, caring, inclusive and collaborative. A male student wrote, “Everyone is engaging and I feel that this class is like a family.” Some students developed positive physics identities as they redefined physics: “When I experience physics on my own in anytime in a day or week, I feel like a physics person.” Implications include interrogating beliefs about physics and students, and examining one’s own practices such that the “smog of bias” (Kost-Smith, Pollock, & Finkelstein, 2010) may be demystified.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Science Education
Thesis Advisors
Emdin, Christopher
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 12, 2015