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Physics department well above national average for women graduates

12/8/2009

About a year ago, near the end of the semester, Austin Peay State University associate physics professor Kevin Schultz noticed something a little odd about the seniors in his department. He glanced over a list of names and realized roughly half of those graduating were female students.

That prompted him to take a closer look at the rolls for his relativity class and his modern physics class. The majority of those students were women.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is unusual,’†he recalled.
About a year ago, near the end of the semester, Austin Peay State University associate physics professor Kevin Schultz noticed something a little odd about the seniors in his department. He glanced over a list of names and realized roughly half of those graduating were female students.

That prompted him to take a closer look at the rolls for his relativity class and his modern physics class. The majority of those students were women.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is unusual,'” he recalled.

In any other field, these numbers wouldn't be all that strange, but for years, physics departments across the country have suffered from severe gender inequity. According to the American Institute of Physics' Statistical Research Center, less than 25 percent of the students who receive a Bachelor of Science degree in physics are female. At Austin Peay, that number is somewhere around 40 percent, putting it well above the national norm.

And with more female students entering the department every year, that number is likely to keep growing.

“The APSU physics department has had a long history of graduating females in physics, but over the next two years, the vast majority of APSU physics graduates will be female,” Dr. Jaime Taylor, interim dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, said.

The department hasn't done anything specifically to target women, but if you were to stop by their offices on the third floor of the Sundquist Science Complex, you might understand why a person of any gender would want to be a part of this program. Students hang out in the hallway, eat in a reserved lunchroom and study and nap in what was once designated as a faculty conference room.

“As a freshman, they made it clear we were always welcome up here,” Megan Wolfe, an 18-year-old sophomore, said. “We'd have study sessions until 2 in the morning right across the hall. The teachers gave up their conference room for us to use as a study room. They have office hours, but we're allowed to come in at any time.”

Wolfe knew since she was in seventh grade that she wanted to study physics, but she didn't know where to attend to college until she talked with Taylor.

“I actually came to Austin Peay and visited him, and he gave me the whole tour of campus,” she said. “He was just very open, and he's what sold me.”

The department has adopted other strategies, Schultz said, for retaining both male and female students, such as having smaller class sizes and offering more big projects instead of night after night of homework.

“We also try to have smaller research opportunities both within the department and encourage them to go out and do summer research,” Schultz said. “That's what we excel at. That's what we do, what we've done.”

These strategies seem to be paying off. Not only does the department have one of the highest female graduation rates in the country, but also in the last five years, around 90 percent of APSU physics students have gone on to graduate programs. That could eventually help solve another issue of the national gender inequity problem because having only a handful of female graduates leads to an even greater disproportion of women faculty members in college physics programs. The American Physical Society estimates that of the 760 degree-granting physics departments in the United States, women represent only 13 percent of the faculty.

“I do think (APSU) is contributing to the solution,” Schultz said.

His student, Wolfe, said she plans to attend graduate school and study theoretical nanophysics. She isn't leaning toward a career in academia, but she said she's willing to keep her options open.

For more information on the APSU physics department, contact Schultz at 931-221-6242 or schultzk@apsu.edu. -- Charles Booth