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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 15 2013: Hey, great article! Have you heard of The Scientista Foundation? It is our mission to increase the number of student women in science by increasing visible role models and strengthening communities for women in STEM across campuses. We'd love to have you join the movement. Check us out! --> www.scientistafoundation.com
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      Apr 15 2013: Hey Julia!
      Thanks so much for commenting! I hadn't heard of The Scientista Foundation, but now that I have I'm really happy it exists! What a great movement!

      Also, regarding your response below about TV show characters that are female scientists, I definitely think that this helps, too! Just as a small example: My 15 year old sister is learning/teaching herself how to code, and visibility of female programmers in TV shows (Such as Penelope Garcia in Criminal Minds and Oswin Oswald in Doctor Who) was a huge help in convincing her that programming isn't just something our dad can do. My sister actually liked the character of Oswin so much, she decided to dress up as her for Comic Con last year! These things that might seem shallow and insignificant are actually a huge help in countering the forces steering women away from STEM.

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