Recruiting Women to Teach PhysicsApril 13, 2010
While AAUW’s new research report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, brings attention to a significant problem that clearly calls for improvement, it is important to recognize some of the “few” who are out there already doing their part to make sure there are “more” — lots more — women in those fields.
A case in point is Jessica Rosenberg, an assistant professor in the George Mason University Department of Physics and Astronomy and the recipient of a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award. Rosenberg will use a portion of the nearly $900,000, five-year award to recruit more women into the physics major and, specifically, into teaching physics. But she likes to point out than an undergraduate degree in physics “leads to a lot of careers in industry — anything that requires technical and analytical skills,” in addition to teaching.
To accomplish her goal, Rosenberg plans to implement a successful process she was involved in at the University of Colorado while doing postdoctoral work. Introductory undergraduate science courses usually have large enrollments and a seminar-type format, which can be intimidating to beginning students. Historically, large numbers of students in such classes don’t engage in the subject matter, and they lose interest and drop out of science programs. By recruiting undergraduate students from these seminars who show potential as science teachers to lead small study groups of fellow students, Rosenberg expects to make introductory physics more interactive and, thus, more compelling. Her hope is that the study group leaders will go on to get teaching credentials, and their fellow students will be inspired to continue in science programs.
The NSF CAREER grants also include a research component, and Rosenberg’s research consists of “observational astronomy on multiwavelength studies of local galaxy populations” that will provide other researchers with a better understanding of how galaxies form and evolve. And since Rosenberg believes it is “useful for classroom teachers to understand what research entails if they are going to work with students and try to explain science to them,” as part of her grant, she plans to hire at least one undergraduate student each summer who is on track to get a teaching certificate to help with research and to translate that research into a teaching model.
Rosenberg, who holds a doctorate in astronomy from the University of Massachusetts and a bachelor’s in physics and astronomy from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, says her own role model in high school was a “fabulous” woman physics teacher who had a doctorate in nuclear chemistry. In college, however, a male college professor “who was proactive in integrating more women into the sciences” encouraged her to pursue science as an academic career.
Like her high school physics teacher and her college professor, Rosenberg is teaching more than physics. And through the students she mentors and inspires, Rosenberg is working to transform the “few” into “many.”