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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 11 2013: I think more than "making rockstars" out of women in the STEM fields, we need to evaluate the reason that there are few women to make rockstars out of in the first place.

    In the 90's, Mattel put out a talking Barbie who famously said "Math class is tough!" I'm sure the company was trying to make something girls could relate to, but that's the problem! Now any girl playing with that Barbie who was struggling in math class might say "Yeah! Math class is tough!" and resign themselves to never understanding math. So many friends of mine in high school would try to do their math homework, not understand it and throw their hands in the air. "Oh yeah, that concept is pretty tough" I'd say "Do you want me to explain it to you?" However rather than take an extra ten minutes to understand the concept, they'd copy the answers from the back of the book. "Nah, its fine. I just really don't like math." I think that the long lasting stigma that girls aren't good at math gives people an excuse to give up when it gets tough. I think no matter how many female mathematicians I list, these friends aren't going to believe in themselves. Low self esteem tends to plague developing girls as it is, so when a subject gets difficult, it's easier to say "I don't like it" than "I don't understand it." Since no one was expecting them to excel anyway, they get away with it.

    Honestly, rather than "rock stars" I think we need more "garage band" women in STEM. Amazing teachers who care about their students are the real way to further the STEM fields. I know my interest in Math has stemmed from fantastic teachers over the years, men and women alike. If we can get to girls (AND BOYS!) early and make these subjects fun, and instill a love for thinking, I think this problem would straighten itself out soon. Obviously, seeing women in science as "rockstars" shows young girls that it IS possible, and that no, it's NOT weird to like math, but I think we have other issues at hand as well.
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      Apr 16 2013: I agree that reforming education is a good place to start. As Nina Tandon's link showed (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/02/04/science/girls-lead-in-science-exam-but-not-in-the-united-states.html?_r=0), boys slightly outperform girls in math in the US in particular. I suspect that this may have something to do with the way that US education revolves around prepping for standardized tests. Standardized test prep detaches the teacher from their teaching, and detaches the subject with its purpose. Studying math and science is less rewarding when the problems feel irrelevant or arbitrary. It is also more difficult to care.
      When faced with these tedious tasks, in addition to the societal expectations of women that girls probably feel from an early age -- from toys, as you mentioned Nicki, to advertisements to cartoon characters -- and when there is no strong force opposing those messages, it's probably very easy to develop a habit of thinking that math and science don't deserve much attention.

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