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Research Mentor and Department
Dr. K. Mairin Hynes
Growth rates of women’s participation in physics at American universities have remained stagnant for over a decade, even while women have begun outnumbering men in university enrollment. To explore why, this project engages with the idea that physics departments act as communities of practice, and physics instructors communicate the community’s cultural expectations through their language when they teach. I emphasize instructors’ impact by comparing the classroom to a laboratory, where the context of an experiment’s set-up influences results. Thus, I argue that instructors should take at least partial responsibility for how they influence students. To investigate natural science instructors’ perceptions about their community and their influence, I designed questionnaires for Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) physics, chemistry, and biology instructors. Responses were analyzed quantitatively through basic statistical analysis and qualitatively through examination of short answer writing. Biology instructors, whose student body is 50% women, showed quantitatively more awareness about the impact of gendered language than did physics instructors, whose student body is 10-15% women. Additionally, physics instructors affirmed the importance of language by rejecting the label “feminist” for certain scientific research practices with whose principles they agreed. Assessing the connections between these instructors’ perceptions and the language they use is one step toward encouraging instructors to communicate more inclusively with their students and involve more women in their disciplines.