In the Foot Steps of Madame Curie: A Cross-Case Study of Female Undergraduate Physics Majors


Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title




A Dissertation Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of DOCTOR of PHILOSOPHY in CURRICULUM AND INSTRUCTION from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Females are disproportionately underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) majors. Further, the number of females who take physics in college has declined. While female students make up 61% of graduates in biological sciences and 50% in chemistry, the proportion of women completing physics degrees is only 21% (Sawtelle, 2011). In order to improve women’s access to science and engineering education, research must focus on personal and environmental factors that motivate them to select these fields (AAUW, 2010). The purpose of this study was to explore how the educational experiences of three female undergraduate physics majors contribute to their current dispositions toward, interest in, and pursuit of physics as a major at a large southern research university. This qualitative study employs symbolic interactionism (Blumer, 1969) as its methodological framework and social cognitive career theory (Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 2002) as its theoretical framework. Case study methods (Yin, 2006) were implemented to investigate the experiences of three participants. The primary sources of data included critical incident interviews (Flanagan, 1954), photographs, documents, object elicitations, and the researcher’s reflections. Narrative and arts-based techniques were employed to analyze and represent data. Findings are presented as co-constructed narratives of the participants’ journeys to becoming undergraduate physics majors. Three major themes emerged from the cross case analysis: carving new spaces, authoring an empowered self, and show me you care and so will I. The direct experiences of engaging with science at a young age and social persuasions of family members, teachers, and peers strongly influenced the participants’ interest in and pursuit of physics. Their current dispositions to physics result from vicarious experiences with professors and peers in combination with the social persuasions of the latter. This study informs science educators in general, and physics educators in particular, about how to motivate and enable female students to engage with physics and possibly pursue it as a career choice. Three major implications for practice were suggested: teach science as a vibrant field, enable students to understand failure as an opportunity to succeed, and shift the focus from competition to collaboration.
Educational Leadership, Curriculum & Instruction
College of Education and Human Development