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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: There's a very funny Big Bang Theory episode that touches on the issue that women are in general turned off from engineering. In the episode, the characters of the show try to get the girls at "the source" while their still in middle school and show them the wonderful career of engineering for all sexes. The visit turned out to be unsuccessful, but it did highlight an important issue that women are needed in the scientific and engineering fields. Although it was unsuccessful in the show, I think the best way to convince these young girls is to "attack" them when they are young. Girls tend not to consider engineering as a professional in high school, because there are so few women in the field today. But with more conversations like this one, and more proactive approaches, awesome TED Fellows like Nina Tandon, inspiring role models, I can see women take the profession by storm soon enough!
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      Apr 12 2013: Hey Ariel!

      So funny that you should mention that episode- a friend just showed me a clip from it last night. It was really funny, but it also made me sad from its depiction of disinterested teenage girls in the face of science.

      But I definitely agree that we're on the right track, as a society, and the numbers do appear to be rising, but we need to continue that process and ideally speed it up! :)
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      Apr 16 2013: I agree with the Big Bang Theory's notion that the "source" of the problem occurs in middle school or at a very young age. Although, many people do not choose what occupations to pursue or fields to study until well into adulthood, the options must be kept open from a very young age. It is easy for a young girl to grow up with the notion that "engineering is for boys" and have the stigma subconsciously stick with her as she develops further interests in her academic future. I think it is important to emphasize at a young age, the important advantage that female engineers would have in an over saturated male engineering environment. Females inherently "think" and act in distinctively different ways from males. This alternate gender and under represented approach to real world problem solving could pave the way for miraculous advancements, that would otherwise be left untouched by the male mind.

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