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The Mentor

Physics professor Teresa Larkin working with one of her students during office hours.

Physics professor Teresa Larkin working with one of her students during office hours.

Teresa Larkin has created a cozy, kitchen table atmosphere in her office. There’s candy, coffee, and plenty of kitsch. “My goal is to make students feel comfortable in this environment, and then they’ll be comfortable to learn physics,” she says. Larkin, an associate professor of physics education, is a dedicated teacher and mentor to American University students. In recognition for her service, Larkin won the Milton and Sonia Greenberg Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Award in January. It was given at the Ann Ferren Conference on Teaching, Research, and Learning, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. In an edited interview with university communications, Larkin talks about the award, her career, and inspiring young women to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.  

UC: Can you tell us about the award you received?

Larkin: “The award recognizes the intersection between the scholarship of teaching, and the scholarship of research on teaching. And it’s focused on student learning. I’ve done a considerable amount of work with writing in the classroom, which is a bit unusual given the fact that I teach physics. I have a course that I created called ‘Physics for a New Millennium,’ and what I want to do is help make the students more productive citizens when they graduate. Employers are looking for written and oral communication skills. The students go through the entire process of writing a research paper for a publication at a conference. They submit an abstract and they write a first draft, which I critically review. Then they do a second draft and learn how to do a peer review. The culmination is that they write a paper and present it at a conference. And I actually write letters to all their parents and invite them. The students have to dress up. We have name tags, we have refreshments. And it gets into the scholarship of teaching and learning because we’re talking about alternative assessment methods.”

UC: Have you tried to get more women interested in the STEM fields?

Larkin: “Absolutely. And my background is both in physics education and engineering. I started out in engineering physics, so I’m really a hybrid. When I was an undergraduate student I thought I was going to be a high-paid engineer working for Boeing or Lockheed, but I didn’t because of the path that I was on, which is very much related to gender issues. The path that I walked to get to this point is very common among females.”

UC: In what way? What was your experience?

Larkin: “Well, I started teaching college before I finished my master’s. They asked me to start teaching before I finished, but then I got married. And so with family, you make sacrifices. Instead of going on to work on a Ph.D., I took a non-tenure-track position and held that for more than 11 years. And after eight years, I went back and worked on my doctorate. And by that time, I had been working with the non-majors. So my Ph.D. is actually in curriculum instruction with a focus in physics education. So I’ve been working with the non-majors because that’s the position that needed filling when I started. And I fell in love with those students.”

UC: What are the biggest impediments for women who want to go into the sciences?

Larkin: “If we look at just mentorship, there’s not so many of us. And I think one of the things that we need to do better is educate everyone on what the situation is. Whether you look at physics numbers, or whether you look at engineering, or just STEM in general, there’s been just a plateau and it stayed there for years and years and years and years. In terms of the number of women getting degrees in engineering, it’s hovering around 18 percent, and in physics it’s not much different than that. One of my students, Tori Vogel, co-authored a study with me on the gender gap in physics and other STEM-related fields. She asked some questions on perceptions. There seems to be a difference in female perceptions of people who choose not to go into STEM versus the people that do STEM. For example, when I was a young person in high school, I was absolutely not steered toward a career in STEM. And all women in my generation dealt with the same thing. We should be an office worker or a nurse or a teacher or something else. So there’s something that drives us to pursue this profession that’s still male-dominated. But a lot of us stop somewhere along the line and make those sacrifices for family and other things. You stop the tenure clock if you’re going to have a baby, but then, your male colleagues are still doing research while your tenure clock has stopped. But at American, we’re not typical in terms of our number of women science students. It’s much higher than average. And so what I’ve tried to model over the years is that it’s okay to be a girlie girl and still like science. My colleague Jessica Uscinski and I co-advise the Women in Science Student Organization. We’re in our fourth year now, and we’re trying to increase campus awareness for STEM.”

UC: As a female physics professor, do you still face obstacles?

Larkin: “I feel pretty comfortable now. I love what I do. I love teaching. I love working with the non-majors, and this department happens to be one of the most amazing departments on campus. The students will tell you that. It’s a happy place. And I respect my male colleagues, my female colleagues, and it’s a mutual respect. And I think that in that sort of environment, anybody can thrive. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”