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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 16 2013: Hi Hindi! It's really wonderful that you've posted this question.
    Women need advocates such as you to use their engineering skills and determine specifically how to get more women in STEM fields.
    I know from speaking with older generations in my family that what motivated them to go into science included not only positive female role models, but also positive male role models who were advocates for them. I think part of the approach to increasing the female population in STEM is not just to educate women and attract them to STEM but to create a male and female gender network that supports them from within a somewhat male dominated field.
    I like to think that when fathers have daughters they become advocates for them in the world. Check out this link on pubmed, the Dads and Daughters advocacy organization: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12025277
    Although the idea here is not specific to STEM, it is an example of the benefits that come from positive male role models in addition to positive female role models.

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