Encouraging women in STEM: What is a teacher to do? (I got published!)

This spring will mark 10 years since I stepped foot in the classroom as a student teacher. It’s always difficult for me to wrap my head around that length of time. By the 10-year mark, it would seem reasonable that a teacher could feel established and start making her way toward mastery…and yet, I still feel like a first year teacher. Due simply to life changes I have worked in five different buildings spanning 3 districts, on 2 sides of the state and have never once had the same set of preps. Only in the last two years have I felt I had the opportunity to truly build and grow a program and the students along with it.

The past two years have also been what can only be described as a special and unique experience. I had a phenominal group of students genuinely interested in the subject matter. So much so I managed to convince three of them that majoring in physics would be a great idea. All three are female.

My breadth of experiences has made me take a very critical look at what encourages student choices and what discourages them. I think too often we attribute outcomes to interest and drive, rather than inspiration and grit. I also firmly believe that while interest and drive are outside of my control, inspiration and grit are within it.

When I ran across a book review discussing a woman’s in a man’s world, specifically a “boy’s club” it immediately inspired me to write and share my experiences to expound on the question, “what do teachers do?” The answer to that question is far more multifaceted than one concluding sentence can contain.

My thoughts were accepted for publication in The Physics Teacher for the February edition, and I’m so thrilled!



Teaching Methods · Uncategorized

Teaching to Reach the Introvert

My second-grade teacher called my mom concerned that I didn’t play with any of the kids at recess: I read a book under a tree instead. When my mom asked if this was a problem the teacher reported that I wouldn’t have any friends. I was elected to represent our class for the school council that year.

Research indicates that as much as 50-74% of the population is extroverted. It is generally viewed as a valued quality: put yourself out there, be friendly, be social. These are the rules society dictates whether it is on the elementary playground or in the workplace. Our culture favors extroversion, and many of the qualities associated with introversion are erroneously viewed as a failure to be able to advocate and insecurities with oneself.

Nowhere does extroversion seem to get a higher reward than in the classroom.  There is a huge emphasis on team and group projects, and the excellent teacher is often seen as the one where energy runs high in the room, rather than examining student behaviors and conversations. During the majority of my high school experience, most classes had a participation grade. If I did not speak in class I was guaranteed nothing higher than an 80% for participation, regardless of the fact that the rest of my work was A-work. I despised the participation grade. Some teachers pride themselves on their use of the Socratic method, but research has indicated that it’s execution this can offer the opportunity for gender bias: male students are more likely than female students to shout out or offer answers to questions, regardless of if they are correct. Teachers, in turn, are more likely to respond to those students and the quiet students are left in the dust.

I want to make perfectly clear that I am in no way, shape or form suggesting that classroom participation, presentations, and conversations should be abandoned, far from it! All of these skills are important and required for any field and for success. At the same time, if we are trying to reach all students in a way that they learn best, then we have to offer comfortable environments for the introverts in addition to the extroverts.

One of my extroverts discussing the solution to the problem. All students in this group worked on the same problem in pairs, then came to consensus before presenting to the class

Science is all about collaboration and presentation. Students who think otherwise are in for a very rude awakening as they approach their senior year of college and enter the workforce or graduate school. A method I have recently adopted is whiteboarding. At the spring meeting of the Chicago Section of AAPT, Kelley O’Shea presented on standards-based grading in physics and lead a workshop on whiteboarding methods. (See her blog!) One of the most important aspects of whiteboarding (and teaching, for that matter) is fostering an environment where it is safe to share and safe to be wrong. In the lab setting, this consists of all of the students putting their lab results on a large whiteboard and standing in a large circle. Students comment on similarities and ask questions about differences on the boards.


Sample board and commentary from students. Students assess each other’s final answers and reasoning in addition to the quality of the presented work. 

I have used this method in my teaching, but I have also included a variation on the model. Occasionally (and in the interest of time and space) I have students circulate the room to examine each of the boards. They are still asked to consider similarities and differences, but I ask them to write questions and comment down on a smaller whiteboard next to each of the large ones. After we have done this, students return to their boards, read the feedback and then I open the floor to comment on similarities and differences. This provides the introverts with a huge advantage: they still get to collaborate in their small groups, but they receive the wealth of information in the large group as well as having another avenue to participate in the whole group discussion.


The second whiteboarding method I find to be highly effective with my introverts, shy students and students who struggle is what Kelley fondly dubs, “whiteboard speed dating”. In this exercise, students are paired at a board and the entire class is given the same problem. Here’s the catch: the problem is goalless, it does not end in “calculate the _____”. Students are two write anything on the board they can (diagrams, equations, graphs, etc) in the time allotted (1-3 minutes). When time is up, partners split, everyone moves around the room to an adjacent desk and now they have a new board, a new partner, and a new perspective. The first time I tried this I, admittedly, was anxious for my most introverted student. She did not speak. ever. even to me. ever. even when asked a question. about anything. Within 3 rotations she was explaining the problem to her partner, and I’ll add: not a student she typically worked with. Working in this manner gave her the confidence to collaborate with another student. Would she get up in front of the class and explain the problem? Not today. But maybe eventually.



“Don’t be scared…it’s me. Love you”

The title is the first instant message sent by AOL instant messenger in 1993. I find it to be a fitting start to this blog.

13 years ago I was one quarter into my junior year of high school. I was unwillingly forced into my first physics class and within a week I was hooked (thanks mom) My teacher seemed to be on one too many Mountain Dews…he talked more rapidly than I do (I talk really fast), he was excited all the time, and clearly brilliant.

At the same time, I was enrolled in a precalculus class with a teacher who often made me uncomfortable, his familiarity becoming increasingly bothersome.

By the time November rolled around I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life: Physics. I was going to apply to the most elite Universities, explore the possibility of engineering, but still a 100% focus on physics and awesomeness. I was infected with an overwhelming amount of excitement and I literally could not stay in my seat during class. November was also the time for course recommendations for the following year. My math teacher did everything in his power to tell me I was inadequate and I had to fight tooth and nail to get into AP Calculus. My physics teacher, on the other hand, suggested I take AP Physics. I was so nervous and shy that I could not muster the gumption to assert that was the class I deeply wanted prior to him suggesting it. When he did I shook my head vigorously.

In the years following I had mostly excellent instructors, mentors and role models. First and foremost my AP Physics teacher, John Lewis. I can only dream to be half the teacher he is. His methodology and pedagogy were so subtle I am still recognizing and uncovering his amazing talent as a teacher.

In college, I was fortunate to not only have amazing professors, but amazing friends, starting the Society for Women in Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and all the while learning how to become a strong, assertive woman in STEM.

Now, I do the very thing that got me started in the first place: I teach high school physics. Too often my graduation plans were met with an unenthusiastic “oh” by my college professors. I was one of the drips leaking out of the pipeline, not pursuing the ultimate goal of the PhD. It made me question if I was settling for less than that which I was capable.

Yet I realize that my work is the only work I could ever pursue with as deep a passion and energy as I do. That is only topped by my work as a wife and mom.

I do all three. I am a Physics Teacher Momma