Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Physics and Testosterone Part 2: Study Hall

In the fall semester of sophomore and junior years, my work-study job at Princeton was to tutor freshman engineers in a study hall sponsored by the engineering school. The study hall had been created a few years before to help freshmen survive the shock of learning calculus, physics and chemistry, all at the same time.

We had a variety of students seeking help. I began to notice a distinct pattern in the sort of help that was needed by women and by men.

The typical interaction with a woman at the study hall went like this:

Woman: "I have no idea how to do this problem!'
Me: "Tell me about the problem"
Woman: [[ detailed explanation of problem ]]
Me: "How do you think you should attack the problem?"
Woman: [[ detailed plan for solving the problem ]]
Me: "Sounds good"
Woman: "Oh thanks so much, you've been so helpful!"

The typical interaction with a man at the study hall went like this:

Man: "I can't get this problem to work"
Me: "Tell me about the problem"
Man: [[ bizarre, complicated, and wrong explanation of the problem ]]
Me: [[ detailed explanation of problem that woman student just told me ]]
Man: "Oh"
Me: [[ detailed plan for solving the problem that woman student just told me ]]
Man: "Really?"
Me: "Would it kill you to try?"
Man: "but [[botched calculation]]"
Me: "Might want to check your signs"
Man: "Hey, I knew it would work!"

Of course, not every student was typical. I remember one freshman woman in particular. She would come in with a male friend. They were taking the sophomore level physics and math courses. This posed a problem for me, as I was also taking the sophomore level physics course, albeit the physics major track, rather than the engineering track. I was barely a week ahead of them. I used my "tell me about the problem" strategy, which at first seemed to satisfy them. But after a few weeks, their questions got more difficult and I was having more difficulty. So I suggested to them that the study hall wasn't really meant to help with sophomore level courses.

A few years later, I found myself a classmate of this student in grad school at Stanford; she went on to get a Ph.D. in Applied Physics. She never quite forgave me for "kicking them out of study hall".  Her story tomorrow.

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