Date of Award

2014

Degree Type

Restricted Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Education

Abstract

The purpose of this exploratory case study was to determine what factor(s) were influencing womens' decision to persist in physics and lead to their successful completion of an undergraduate physics program. The number of bachelor's degree in physics awarded between 1933 and 2009 showed a steady increase in female participation in physics which peaked at 22% around 2000 before going into a slow decline. The representation of women in undergraduate physics remains among the lowest of any scientific field just slightly ahead of engineering. Numerous empirical studies, conferences, workshops, etc., have attempted to explain the low participation in physics, in particular, of women. A leaky physics pipeline is one explanation for the paucity of women in physics. The biggest leak in the pipeline occurs when women are said to switch out of the pipeline in greater proportion than men - somewhere between completion of high school and the end of the 1st year of college. The last opportunity for increasing the number of female students in the physics pipeline lies with undergraduate physics program. Identification of those factors favorable for attracting and retaining women in undergraduate physics programs is the purpose for this study.

The participants in the study were women who had graduated between 2006 and 2009 from a private institution with an undergraduate degree in physics. During the time the participants were enrolled, the program had been experiencing a high rate of men and women participation in the undergraduate physics, and success in the number of degrees awarded. Notable improvement in the undergraduate physics program is believed to have led to the program having the highest graduation rate across the nation in 2007. The undergraduate physics program had been effective in the retention of both men and women, and women in particular, but it was unclear what aspects of the program were influencing the women's persistence. In depth qualitative interviews were conducted with eight women who had successfully completed the physics program to see what they identified as crucial factors that kept them in the field.

The qualitative multiple-case study strategy was the best method for conducting an in-depth exploration of the personal stories of each of the women in the study.

The case study findings revealed five important factors that facilitated the women persistence and successful completion of the physics program: having helpful, encouraging, and supportive professors who were accessible formally and informally for advisement and academic support; development of peer relationships that were encouraging and supportive in and outside the classroom in which the women were able to develop solid friendships; development of informal study groups was critical to perseverance when women struggling with a coursework needed the support of classmates; responding to the challenge of learning physics; and physics social events in which faculty and students participated enhanced a sense of belonging to a close-knit community.

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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

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