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Hindi Kornbluth

The Cooper Union For The Advancement of Science and Art

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Will making rockstars out of women in science get more girls interested in science/technology/engineering/math (i.e. STEM) fields?

This week in my bioelectricity class, my classmates and I realized that this was the first engineering class any of us had ever taken where there were more women than men enrolled. We also realized that for most of us, this class, taught by TED fellow Nina Tandon, was the first engineering class we had taken to be taught by a female professor.

Finding ways to close the gender gap in science/technology/engineering/math (i.e. STEM) fields is a hot topic, and there are many discussions out there highlighting the many forces that could be at work: gender-biasing in toys, a culture that tends to oversexualize women (see: the “40 Hottest Women in Tech” list published by Complex Magazine earlier this year), or links between a society’s gender equality and female performance in the sciences. Particularly interesting is the recent finding that 15-year-old girls around the world outperform boys in science, but not in the US, Britain, and Canada.

Thinking back to Nina’s class, I wondered if we could use this class as a microcosm and ask, might we be able to get more interested in STEM fields by providing more female role models?

The potential role models are out there: women from history, like Ada Lovelace, arguably the world’s first computer programmer, and Rosalind Franklin, who discovered the structure of DNA. There’s Lise Meitner, who helped discover nuclear fission, and Emelie Du Chatelet, who predicted the existence of infrared radiation and proved that kinetic energy was proportional to v^2. For more modern inspirations, see: http://blog.ted.com/2012/07/03/more-than-75-tedtalks-showing-women-in-science-and-tech/

In 2009, the NSF reported that than 20% of engineering students were women, out of almost 500,000 students in total. Inspiring young women to go into engineering in equal numbers to men would translate to the education of another 300,000 engineers in the United States alone. How do we make this happen?

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    Apr 11 2013: Well, nothing says numbers have to be 100% equal. I mean, I'm a man, and if there were more females in something than men, I wouldn't lose sleep over it.

    Why do you care if a bunch more women become engineers? Maybe they just don't like it.
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      Apr 11 2013: Hey Greg, thanks so much for your comment!

      I wouldn't mind if there were, say, 45 female engineers for every 55, or even possibly 35 engineers for every 65. However, the fact that there are only 20 female engineers to every 80 leads to the conclusion that there is something happening somewhere in young women's science education (that is not happening in that of young men) to actively discourage them from pursuing degrees in it.

      As a female engineer, I want to make sure that the 15 year old girl in a chemistry class is looking at the material and seeing the same potential she'd see if she were a boy.
      As a person living in a world where scientific innovation enriches the quality of life, I want to see if we can do anything to stop a strange phenomena where a group that makes up more than 50% of the world's population doesn't seem to present an interest in a discipline that's dedicated to scientific innovation.

      I'm not saying we should go into classrooms full of girls and fill out engineering school applications for them against their will; I'm saying that the percentage difference is too large be happening naturally, and if we can bring more educated science students into this world, we should be trying to find a way to do it!
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      Apr 11 2013: hi Greg

      One problem is actually that there are many more women entering STEM fields, but not staying in them. If they were just not interested, you might imagine that across the board at school there might be no women (there might of course be other causes, but let's take that one for now).
      But the fact that there are fewer and fewer women relative to men as you go higher up in academia (Masters degrees, PhDs faculty etc) - makes me think that one cause could be a lack of role models.
      So we should look at how to keep women in STEM fields, and personally for me this is where role models can be an important tool.
      I think there are many other factors at play of course, including making the STEM environments attractive to stay in, but this is a topic for another discussion perhaps!

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