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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: I think any publicity, if you draw attention to it and make it look attractive catches on. People sometimes just forget to champion science to girls because girls are more socially-minded and tend to be more interested in people than things. That said, there are plenty of science to be explored in female-centric preoccupations. Science of fetal brain development, science of friendship, science of love, science of beauty. The point is NOT to try to too hard making girls feel drawn towards rocket ships. Some would be, but if you're around children in a play area, you'll see girls zoom in on a doll and other girls, while the boys will immediately be drawn to things that go. Science is a method. Girls can still remain girls and be preoccupied in things that they are naturally drawn to--but this time in a scientific perspective.
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      Apr 12 2013: hi Cecilia

      I agree that one shouldn't be prescriptive - I loved dolls, but I also loved things that go - and microscopes! I was lucky enough to have a family that encouraged me, but I think some girls do grow up with people not buying them "boy-like" toys, so in that sense, we should try to give both boys and girls the same messages, that science is fun and interesting!
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      Apr 12 2013: Hi Cecilia! Thanks so much for your comment!

      While I definitely see your point, I think generalizing girls like that is a slippery slope. Girls can be interested in (and excel!) in the hard sciences as well. I've seen it firsthand over and over again in my engineering school. I just think somewhere along the way, they're not being inspired the same way boys in their classes are. That's where we need to look to solve this problem.

      I definitely agree with you that "forcing" science upon girls is NOT the way to go. On the other hand, I think there are still too many households where girls only get "girl toys" and boys only get "boy toys." I'm lucky enough to have an awesome engineer for a father, so my childhood playroom was as much filled with K'nex, legos, and chemistry kits as it was barbie dolls, but outside of my college friends, most girls I know were not as lucky.

      Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, a webcomic by Zack Weiner, has a humorous piece illustrating the problem at hand: http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=1883

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