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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 12 2013: I think role models are an important piece of the missing women in STEM puzzle. Role models can play a valuable role throughout a person’s trajectory into becoming a scientist, not just getting kids interested in science in the first place. Pursuing any STEM major in college and graduate school is tough and often demanding work. It can be empowering to be able to “see” someone who looks like you doing cool and meaningful work in your field. This is true for both women and minorities as Dr. Danielle Lee explains at http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/04/01/under-represented-and-underserved-why-minority-role-models-matter-in-stem/.

    Do these role models need to be “rock stars”? I’m not quite sure. Not everyone wants to be a rock star. I definitely agree with Bob’s comment about how heroes do not have to be in the headlines. Especially since most rock stars wind up in the headlines for less than admirable reasons.

    On a personal note, I run a Tumblr blog, sheblindeduswithscience.tumblr.com, where I profile contemporary women scientists who I think do interesting work. And as a grad student working on her own thesis project, I do find reading about women scientists and their awesome research really motivating. (And I always love suggestions for new highlights!)
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      Apr 12 2013: Hi Allyson! Thanks for commenting!

      First of all, what a fantastic tumblr! I think increased visibility is really important in this goal, and every resource helps!

      There seems to be a poor reaction to my use of the word "rock star," but what I truly meant was someone in the spotlight for their scientific work, somebody like Neil Degrasse Tyson who can go on prime time TV and discuss science in a public space and who is still seen as somebody cool (not quite the "sex, drugs, rock and roll" that has been projected). I still think that's really important. I know that not everyone wants to be a rock star, but I think it's important for women in the field to care about this cause, and to recognize that (until this huge percentage difference shrinks) we need more female scientist role models!

      Keep up the awesome work!

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