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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 13 2013: You have to be kidding. If a man or woman were not already inclined to science thy would never even know their names, or care too.
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      Apr 13 2013: Walter-

      I'm sorry that you seem to live somewhere where your non-scientifically inclined friends are completely apathetic to the study, but in my experience, most people have heard of Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and Sir Isaac Newton. A lot have even heard of Neil Degrasse Tyson and Brian Cox. I don't think it's asking too much of society to suggest that there should be a female scientist whose name is as widespread.
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        Apr 14 2013: I knew Marie Curie's name when I was a little girl. Two Nobels, one in Chemistry and one in Physics. And her daughter had a Nobel prize as well.
        • Apr 15 2013: Nobels - no apostrophe (sorry, teacher, not nazi).

          i use marie curie in one of my lessons too, though it tends to creep the students out, dying from radiation poisoning and all. it would be nice to have an alternative that met with a rosier end, any suggestions?
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          Apr 15 2013: As co-founder of the Scientista Foundation, I often ask women and men if they can name a female scientist. The most common answer? -- Marie Curie! I get it so often that I call it the "Marie Curie Phenomenon." Though Dr. Curie was a brilliant scientist, there are many notable women in STEM throughout history and present-day that people should be aware of. In order to increase the visibility of these women, we at Scientista launch social media campaigns and feature articles. One of our most recent project highlighted the 16 female Nobel laureates in science. If you're looking to learn more names, this would be a great place to start! --> https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.486949788003105.109655.291308750900544&type=3

          Julia Tartaglia, Co-Founder, The Scientista Foundation (www.scientistafoundation.com)
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        Apr 14 2013: Hi Hindi,
        I think you bring up a very relevant issue. Women are highly underrepresented in the fields of math, engineering, and science and I feel this should change. I think that although there are interesting science related programs out there for young students, they often have a more negative social perception. I remember in my middle school it was extremely embarrassing to be a girl on a math team or robotics team. Though some of it may just take time, I think the integration of women should not be taken lightly. If slowly the image of a female scientist or engineer could become someone inspiring, someone to look up to and aspire to be like, it could really make an impact. With the recent increase in successful tv reality shows, why not make one about a female scientist? As long as it includes all the drama, plot, and excitement of other tv shows it could really help introduce young girls to the idea of working in such a field at a young age.
        • Apr 15 2013: why should this change? to me it's a triumph for humanity if people - girls or boys - can choose not to continue with studies that don't wish to continue without being coerced by incentives to follow some path other than the one they wish to take. i agree that addressing a stigma that might be preventing girls from entering science is a worthy goal, but then the goal is that; fighting the stigma, not drawing more girls into science.
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          Apr 15 2013: There are some great tv shows and films that feature women scientists, and I think they are really powerful. We definitely need more of them. One of my personal favorites is Temperance Brennan, the protagonist of the TV hit, Bones, which is produced by forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs. It would be interesting to conduct a study on the impact of these "rockstar" scientistas.

          Julia Tartaglia
          Co-Founder, The Scientista Foundation
          http://www.scientistafoundation.com
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          Apr 15 2013: In what way was it embarrassing to be a girl on the math team?!
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          Apr 15 2013: I happen to agree with Ben and believe that every person should have the freedom to choose whatever career path they want and not be pressured into science if they don't want to. One of the reasons why I believe, many women opt not to go into science, is because those careers are often more demanding and it could be much harder to raise a family. On the other hand, if a woman wants to pursue science - I believe that she should have every opportunity to do so. And I believe its important for those woman that have careers in science and are also dedicated mothers to publicize their accomplishments so that they can serve as role models for other women. There are many woman that shy away from going into science, even when they're interested because of this career vs family factor, and I believe that it's important to show these women that it's possible to have both.
          I do think that having role models can be helpful for women. And I think it's important to educate young girls about all types of fields - humanities and science equally. Whatever our daughters want to accomplish in their careers - they should be able to, and I think it's important to educate women that they shouldn't let family get in the way if they dream of both. Every person should be able to accomplish what they want based on their own merit - not their gender.
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          Apr 15 2013: Neema, I think the point of embarrassment is because hard science is still a male bastion. Engineers, mathematicians ans scientists have the stereotypes of 'don't-mess-with-me' which is essentially a male fad. I work with a team of scientists and engineers for over 20 years now where a girl would think twice before wearing a particular shade of lipstick, afraid that it would make her look too feminine. The embarrassment is on account of women trying to fit into male stereotypes.
          I think women think very differently from men and they assimilate in fundamentally different ways from men as well. Science will greatly benefit if women can make their own codes of conduct and attitudes while doing STEM.
          I am a great fan of Jane Goodall, who can be a role model easily. Please do not make a connection between that and my profile pic. :)
          Cheers!!
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          Apr 15 2013: Hey Neema! Those are some really interesting ideas! Though regarding the reality show one, I worry that, like most reality shows on TV, there would be a distinct lack of reality involved. :)


          Hey Lauren! While I definitely think that societal pressures of women and family are partly to blame, I feel like it cannot be the main cause of the gender disparity. If a woman's desire to start a family constantly overpowered the desire to work, we wouldn't see women enrolling in advanced degree programs overall. Meanwhile, overall there are actually more women than men in universities. Med school and Law school enrollment is about 50/50.
          And it's probably a lot easier to be a full-time mother who's a programmer than it is to be a full-time mother who's a doctor, wouldn't you say?
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          Apr 15 2013: A great comment about Bones was brought up. Big Bang Theory, another such show, has 23 of its female characters as scientists!

          I dont think its accurate to say that any scientist is a rockstar... Perhaps in the scientific community there are certain people who are held at high esteem, but certainly the male members will tent to idealize the male scientists and I know that Hindi (OP) probably idealizes a few female scientists!

          I think that peoples work stands for itself. We arent living in a time where women need to use male pseudonyms when they publish. Female work is represented in the scientific community, and worthy material will be idealized. The stigma is only residue of Old World ways.
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          Apr 16 2013: Hi Hindi,
          In regards to what you said earlier about woman being enrolled in high degree programs,
          Yes many women are enrolled but how many of those go on to advanced careers. Since many women in our society typically start families later te time that they graduate from their advanced degrees is often the time that they are looking to start a family. Just something to think about.
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          Apr 16 2013: I agree with Ben here.

          Every person should have their own choice as to what they want to do with their lives. However, if we take that too freely then there will be no guidance to our youth. Its the guidance and social stigmas that push the youth to grow into something one day.

          If girls don't want to enter scientific fields, why make them? Maybe its only a matter of social stigmas. What society accepts as truth is hard to change; you never really know where and when social stigmas are going to end up.

          As Avi says, the stigma of the male dominated society is only a residue of Old World ways. In today's world, anyone can enter the science field without any real prejudices.
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        Apr 15 2013: Ben, while Julia provides you the laureates and Wikipedia has a long list from before the 21st century, I think pointing to some working right now is, if anything, more valuable. A look at faculty at your closest university is an example.

        There are those who think Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist who has been on faculties at Princeton, MIT, and Harvard may be the most gifted theoretical physicist ever to get her doctorate at Harvard.

        The president of Princeton University is an acclaimed biologist.

        For that matter, we have women scientists and technologists among our TED speakers, which brings them into your classroom easily on any computer..

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