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Syllabus: physics program beats gender odds

Ask Bob Gallup to explain physics, and his eyes light up.

Quantum mechanics? He can explain that.

The theory of relativity? He can explain that.

But ask Bob Gallup to explain why the percentage of women physics majors at Southwestern is more than twice the national average, and the physics professor is stumped.

“I have no idea,” he says flatly. “No explanation at all.”

Of the 20 physics majors who have graduated from Southwestern over the past eight years, eight (40 percent) have been women. Nationwide, though, the total of women physics majors has been only 19 percent. Right now, three of the nine declared physics majors at Southwestern are women. And Gallup simply doesn’t know why.

Physics, Gallup points out, is not for all students, regardless of gender. In fact, he says, “pound-for-pound, there’s not a harder major on any campus than physics.” Gallup describes the subject as linear and vertical—one class builds on another, which serves as the foundation for more advanced work. Miss a class, and vital groundwork has been omitted.

As a result, the number of incoming physics majors at SC is small, even smaller than the number that eventually graduate.

“We don’t necessarily recruit,” Gallup says with a grin, “we steal.”

Many of the current majors, in fact, started out in other departments: One was a business major, one was in chemistry and another in biology, two were undecided, two were theatre majors. In the 10 years Gallup has been on the SC faculty, exactly five students have entered as physics majors.

“I can’t convince anyone to be a physics major,” Gallup says. “I might be able to convince them to take a class, but being a major is just too hard.”

So physics ends up with the students who are not only bright, but are motivated, hard-working, and more than a little stubborn. These are the students willing to spend two hours on one homework problem—and still might not find the answer. Gallup claims these budding scientists are proving something to themselves.

above: Bob Gallup, chair of the mathematics/physics program, explains a problem to physics majors (left to right) Shalah Allison, Angela Pooler, and Natalie Terry.

“Being a physics major is the equivalent of being a Marine—it’s not for everybody. And getting a graduate degree in physics is like being a Special Forces operative. Sometimes you have to gut it out and do what’s necessary,” he says.

And SC’s physics program is producing its share of these academic Special Forces, as well as graduate students in other disciplines. Moundbuilder physics majors currently are in graduate programs at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, at the University of Arizona, at Notre Dame, at Penn State. Two of the class of 2003 will be in engineering programs at the University of Washington; previous graduates are in seminary, in an MBA program, and making a career as a patents lawyer.

They are equally successful in obtaining the highly-competitive summer research experiences for undergraduates offered by the National Science Foundations.

And the success continues to build a remarkably large program. As a comparison: From 1997-2001, Southwestern had 13 physics majors, with about 600 undergraduates in all. The University of Kansas, by contrast, had 64 physics majors in an undergraduate population of approximately 19,000.

So maybe SC is attracting physics majors because it appeals to students who are successful, hard-working, bright, and enjoy a challenge. But what about all those women?

To this Gallup has only one response.

“I have no idea.”