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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: One issue which has been on my mind recently is that of blogging. I have a blog where I discuss science, but I haven't blogged about women in science specifically. This is an important issue, but rather than only being upset about the many challenges in women in science (which are often what blogs focus on) I think making positives, (aka your "rock stars") is really good - because it focuses on changing the conversation too, rather than solely focusing on the challenges/issues we know are there.

    It might be fun to start a "Female Scientist of the Week" entry/blog space - to highlight women in different fields, and of different levels. Why not profile students all the way up the ladder, and postdocs and faculty etc.?
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      Apr 12 2013: Renee, thanks so much for your continual input! It's obviously a huge honor to be able to bounce ideas back and forth with you!

      I think the "Female Scientist of the Week" is an amazing idea! I was actually just talking to my little sister about this conversation (She's 15, in a pre-engineering high school program, and LOVING it), and I brought up this idea to her. I'm always trying to educate her about all of the awesome female scientists that came before her, since I remember being her age and how hard it was for me to have confidence in my scientific ability. Luckily her engineering teacher is a woman, so she's already got a head start, but a blog (or even just a blog feature!) like that could be an awesome resource for budding female scientists!
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      Apr 12 2013: I think the idea of showing females at different stages of their education and careers rather than particularly the "rock stars" is a good one, as this can make it easier for a girl to visualize the path she might take.

      In fact when I taught middle school math, I tried to borrow each of my daughters when I could to have them talk with the kids, because at the time one was studying chemistry and the other math and physics.

      I did notice that the girls I taught were more captivated, typically, by life science than by physical science.

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