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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: As a woman in science from a developing country I think role models come in many forms. I think it is important for us not to focus purely on science role models but also consider role models who haven't got those 'paper qualifications'. Mothers in fact are some of the biggest influences on all our lives. I have always admired scientists of both genders but never idolised. I got the strength to be anything I wanted to be from my mum. She allowed and encouraged me to be curious and live my dreams. I think kids need access to role models who are inspirational and have challenged society and moved mountains to become what they are today. They need role models in the people they meet everyday who believe in them. There are plenty of these unsung heroes in our parts of the world. It doesn't matter what field they are in because at the end of the day, kids just have to feel confident that they can do it. If you feel confident and inspired then you will pursue whatever field is of interest to you whether or not it is in the STEM fields.

    I know the whole rockstar analogy has been discussed before but I just like to also comment that the image of a rockstar is not necessarily a positive image. Maybe my thoughts on rockstars are biased by what i see in the media but they peak and crash, take drugs and party. Is that really what we want kids to associate their dreams with? and yes, just a few of them ever get any limelight. I think the people who influence kids should be people that are human. Someone accessible, someone anyone can connect with.

    If we consider female role models in science - how many scientists actually take time out to do outreach work? To BE accessible? A role model should be someone who has achieved great things but is yet able to make time to inspire. Not just a face on a poster.

    I suppose it goes back to the beginning of what I said - role models should not just be those achieving great things, they should be everyday people who are real.
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      Apr 12 2013: Hi Asha! Thank you so much for commenting!

      I definitely see what you're saying about the rock star analogy. When I wrote it I had in mind people like Brian Cox and Neil DeGrasse Tyson- people who are involved in popular culture and pop up on TV for being scientists.

      I definitely agree that this quest for good role models comes in two parts, the "rock star" part, where young women can see women getting media coverage for scientific endeavors, and (as my sister Nicki called it in a comment below) "Garage band" role models, teachers and mothers, as well!

      I know personally the reason I got into engineering is because in 8th grade, my math teacher took all of the girls in her honors math class to NJIT for a "Women in engineering" day, and my math teacher continued to push me in the right direction all that year. However, I feel the reason I've been able to stay in engineering is because of the "rock star" scientists like Ada Lovelace and Emilie Du Chatelet whose existence proves beyond a fraction of a doubt that my gender has absolutely nothing to do with my scientific ability.

      I think your idea about role models being accessible is the perfect best of both worlds, though! Having Nina Tandon as a professor definitely feels like that most of the time!

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