Gender disparity reduced in merged AP Physics classes

Unlike prior years, students no longer have to decide between two AP Physics classes: AP Physics I & II and another class called AP Physics C.

During the 2020-2021 school year, the two separate AP Physics classes were combined into one, which continues to exist this year. The new combined AP Physics course aims to provide a flexible curriculum, and the teachers hope it will provide a welcoming environment for students of all genders.

Before in AP Physics C, the year was cut in two, where the first semester taught AP Physics C Mechanics and the second semester taught AP Physics C Electricity & Magnetism. Science Curriculum Coordinator Ed Wiser said that the slight difference between the two AP Physics courses existed only in the small amount of calculus in the AP Physics C curriculum.

“Last year they reduced some of the additional content in the AP Physics I exam so that it’s just basically mechanics. So now what’s the difference between AP Physics I & II and AP Physics C Mechanics? A tiny little bit of calculus that we would teach the kids anyway, just a few tricks. It’s just basically an algorithm,” Wiser said.

Wiser said that a common misconception surrounding AP Physics C was that BC Calculus was a prerequisite for the course. In actuality, there were no math requirements for AP Physics C. Wiser said that female students didn’t feel prepared enough due to the level of math they took at the high school.

“Read that as gender disparity right there… Because they were in different math classes [there was gender disparity in AP Physics C]. If you look at the gender disparity in BC versus AB calculus, you’ll notice a clear difference there,” Wiser said.

Prior to the combination of all AP Physics classes, the gender imbalance in the classes was more evident. According to the Massachusetts Department of Education (DOE)’s Advanced Placement Performance Report from the 2019-20 school year, only 14 female students from the high school took the Physics C: Mechanics and Physics C: E exams out of 53 total students.

Senior Liv Ernst said this disproportion is reflected in her AP BC Calculus class this year. Looking back at her Advanced Geometry course her freshman year, Ernst said the ratio was striking and initially caused her to feel intimidated.

“I feel like at BHS it’s kind of expected in an advanced math class to feel that genders vary a little bit more,” Ernst said.

According to Ernst, she had to adapt to the environment and fast-paced nature of advanced math classes starting her freshman year. She said she will be able to bring these skills with her as she continues to pursue STEM in higher education.

“I think that was the class [Advanced Geometry] that I had the most growth in. By the time you’re a senior, you learn how to collaborate and speak up for yourself and work through problems. Because if you don’t, then you won’t succeed in the class,” Ernst said. “You have to learn how to problem-solve and how to communicate effectively.”

The advanced math track begins with Advanced Geometry during students’ freshman years and, if students stay in advanced classes, ends with AP BC Calculus. Students work with their math teachers in eighth grade to determine which of the three geometry math classes to take.

To improve the gender ratios of high-leveled classes in STEM, Ernst said attention should be directed to these classes prior to high school.

“I think it starts in middle school, with who’s challenged in those classes, who is given extra work, who was looked at for more challenging opportunities. I did MathCounts and Mathletes in middle school, I was always involved in the extra stuff to do, but a lot of people aren’t,” Ernst said.

Ernst explained that her AP Physics teacher opened the class by mentioning the issue of mansplaining so everyone would feel comfortable. Senior Carly Grossman also said that her teacher contributed to a welcoming class environment.

“He doesn’t say it directly, so I think no one feels super targeted. Here’s something that as a community we’re working towards, making sure everyone feels listened to and understood,” Grossman said.

Wiser said that the false perceptions of the differences between AP Physics I & II and AP Physics C have been eliminated with the new combined class. As a result, more people are included in the course.

“If we reduce the number of ‘levels’- even though they weren’t really levels, they were two different types of courses – we’ve eliminated the perception that you have to be in this classroom or that one,” Wiser said. “We brought everybody in.”