Thinking back on my training in physics, I realized that I have some stories to tell that might shed some light on the effect of gender on the development of scientists, engineers, and technologists, and how to do better.
My sophomore year at Princeton, I took the physics-major track physics courses. For Electricity and Magnetism, we had a professor fresh out of Caltech, who we all called "Captain Kirk". As rumor had it Captain Kirk borrowed his curriculum from a graduate course at Caltech which had a track record of producing Nobel Prize winners. The textbook was completely inscrutable and the problem sets were pretty much impossible.
Looking back on it, I'm pretty sure that if the curriculum ever produced Nobel Prize winners, it wasn't because it did a good job of teaching the material. More likely it was effective because it did a terrible job of teaching the material. Which had 2 consequences:
- All us smart-ass physics students quickly realized that we weren't nearly as smart as we thought we were. We were unaccustomed to the fear of failure, and it motivated us.
- We formed groups to work on problem sets together and taught each other the material.
- Except for the freshman who miraculously did all the problem sets on his own.
“Women need more positive reinforcement, and men need more negative reinforcement. Men wildly overestimate their learning abilities, their earning abilities. Women say, ‘Oh, I’m not good, I won’t earn much, whatever you want to give me is O.K.’ ”Maybe Captain Kirk's course was really designed to discourage us. Filled with testosterone or conditioned by society, the guys among us were stupidly overestimating our capabilities and we needed to be brought down to earth. We had all been solo stars in high school, and we needed to to be forced to work with our peers. We needed to be broken down so that we'd be more open to new ideas.
Probably the one woman in our study-group didn't need to learn those lessons. More positive reinforcement could have helped her more. (She ended up getting the physics degree just fine and went to med school.)
Despite Captain Kirk's hopes, no one from the class has won a Nobel Prize, yet.