February 28, 2017

STEM Girls

 

As a girl who grew up loving science and math, but eventually moved away from it, I have a love/hate relationship with the recent STEM and coding movements. I know math and science are important, especially for girls. Then again, the only female math or science teacher I had was my 10th grade Biology teacher, Mrs. Head. Even then, it wasn’t like it was so special because she was my aunt’s sister so I already knew her.

I always look back and say that I probably had one of the best STEM experiences in high school because almost all my classes were filled with other girls. If my memory serves me correctly, I’d say that the top 25 of my class (of which I was one!), half were girls. This is out of over 400 kids. Back then – 30 years ago, Class of ’87!! – it was unheard of for so many girls to be at the top of the class.

I’d say, for the most part, my teachers didn’t have issues with ‘the girls’. There was one (male) science teacher who would often put us in boy vs. girl teams, but I never saw it as a gender issue. For the most part the girls were equal to the boys, and we usually won, so I saw it as a way to tap down the testosterone surge of awkward high school boys. Maybe I was naive. And, if so, I’ll just keep it that way. Sure, that teacher had favorites – all of them boys. While  he made it very clear to me that he was never going to accept that I was as smart as the smartest boys, he had to pretend when every time he asked me to prove my worth I did. As a matter of fact, he didn’t want me to go to a state science competition because I was the only girl selected and we’d need a female chaperone. I was required to ask the female teachers if one would like to be my chaperone. Luckily I wasn’t asked to pay more to have my own hotel room, but he make it known that ‘his boys’ had to share a room while I got my own. At the end of the day, I won! None of ‘his boys’ won their divisions. I did. Not only did I win my division, my project and presentation were selected as one of the top three overall. Boom! Oh, and he had to present my award at the school assembly even though he didn’t want to.

I’ve looked back on that one incident and how, despite my hundreds of hours of work between 11pm and 3am having my mom drive me to the university two days a week for several months so I could work with a professor and his team of Ph.D. and Masters students, for me it was never trying to prove I was good enough. At that time, I didn’t see that he didn’t want any girls on his science teams and did everything he could to keep us off. Part of that was teen cockiness. But part of it was because my mom always told me that I if I did the work she’s make sure I had the same opportunities.

Then I went away to college. And the teen cockiness was knocked down quickly. I selected my program – constructional engineering – because it’s something I was really interested in learning and doing. I was one of about 6 girls in the program, and that included the graduate students and office staff. That should give you an idea of where I found myself. The professors were openly sexist. The teaching assistants had no time for me. In my advance physics class I was one of a few girls. I was the only girl in my physics lab. I was one of 3 girls in my Advanced Differential Calculus class, but the only freshman. I looked around, day after day, and saw few women. The women I saw were so busy keeping their place at the table there was no time left to make sure I even had a place in the room.

Now, as a mom to a girl who excels in math and science in a world where STEM education for girls has become a focus of education I’m not the advocate I once thought I would be. Yes, BabyGirl has been involved in robotics and science camps, often being the only girl. Yes, BabyGirl spent a summer in the NASAGirls program and has attended girl-only summer STEM camp at the local universities.

The push for STEM-everything, which is really coding-focused for the elementary and middle school ages, doesn’t seem genuine when it comes to girls, though. Sure, there are amazing organizations like Girls Who Code, but their local programs are connected to a school and if you don’t happen to go to that school you’re on your own. And what if you don’t want to code?

What if you don’t want to code? Can you tell me what’s out there for girls who don’t want to code but love science and technology and engineering and math? I can tell you. Not much. With all the great programs that use STEM as their basis, there is such a predominance of coding that kids are learning that STEM is coding. Girls are being taught that STEM equals coding.

So when they don’t like coding, they don’t like STEM. If they’re not good at coding they start to think they’re not good at STEM. They’re not good at science or math. And that’s where I have a problem.

I was fortunate. Up until about 10 years ago, education was about the various types of science – biology, botany, zoology, chemistry, physics, and so many others – and math. It wasn’t about coding. I hated coding. It’s one of the reason I left my engineering program in college. It’s not that I wasn’t good at it, it’s that I hated staring at a screen with a bunch of nonsense to try and make some stupid design or have a series of number print out on a card. Science and math weren’t fun any more.

And that’s where I am today as a mom, trying to convince my daughter that math and science are fun. That they are used in real life. That there’s more to STEM than coding.

I believe that coding has its place in STEM. But it would be great if schools and the STEM movement would move beyond that focus and create programs that actually try to keep girls interested in science and math beyond elementary school. I say this because I know that there are awesome science and math programs and careers out there for girls, but they have to stay interested long enough to be able to see them as viable college and career options.

What are your thoughts about STEM education for girls? Has your experience been different?

Sara

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January 9, 2017

Hidden Figures One Sheet

Based on the book of the same name, the movie Hidden Figures has grown from a small-budget, limited-release film to one that has expanded release and is receiving critical acclaim. The book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, written by Margot Lee Shetterly, brings to light several of the key African-American women who worked as ‘calculators’, and then mathematicians, at what is now NASA. Long before computers, people did the work of calculators. During their time, beginning in the 1940s, these young African-American women not only dealt with the sexism of the day but also were constantly reminded that ‘they’ were different. Regardless of the caliber of their work, it was several decades of being ‘colored’ and treated as third-class citizens that each of them had to contend with to do jobs where they could use their talents and pursue work that allowed them not only to contribute the space-race but also contribute to their self-satisfaction.

Although it was first released in select cities, I knew I wanted to see the movie and take BabyGirl to see it too. For decades young black girls never knew that there was a foundation in math and science careers set for them by the women portrayed in the movie and many others like them. As a bi-racial child, it is important to me that BabyGirl learn about her African-American history. Equally important is to teach her that while she’s grown up being told girls can do anything they set their mind to, sexism still may play a role. It’s easier to find stories of women who’ve overcome sexism in the workplace to become successful. But to have a story where even if they could overcome the sexism, the color of their skin was a constant reminder that they were ‘less than’ when it came to the type of work being done for the space program.

The theater was mostly empty, with BabyGirl significantly bringing down the average age. The movie moves along quickly and keeps you engaged. If you’ve never experienced racism first hand, there are a few uncomfortable situations that are even still pertinent today. The sexism can be brushed aside as something ‘of the time’. I think most of us are accustomed to women’s roles in the 50s and 60s. The music, the costumes, and the historical accuracy are so well done that you’re not distracted by something that doesn’t fit. The writers deserve a lot of credit for these because they could have easily left us trying to reconcile things on our own. Instead, they give us a truth that is closer to their reality and not one that we need to construct.

Now open nationwide, it’s very easy to encourage everyone to go see Hidden Figures. The reasons, though, are multi-faceted. It’s a story to encourage girls in STEM education. It’s a story that shows young black girls that despite thinking the path was only recently created this is a trail that was blazed a generation ago and has much deeper roots. It’s a story to remind us that thinking big and doing what seems impossible is a foundation of this country – for all people.

I think everyone who sees it can find their connection. As a parent, I feel connected to Katherine Johnson’s parents who were strong advocates for their gifted daughter. As a girl who loved math but felt pushed out by ‘the boys’, I know how difficult it must have been for these women to do this back in their time. As an American I see that we have come a long way, but still have room to improve.

Any time we have the opportunity to tell the stories of people whose stories were ignored, we need to do it. To think that major advances or events happened with only certain people perpetuates the misinformation that we’ve become conditioned to accept as fact. Today we have a platform to tell these stories. But we also have the responsibility to ensure that similar stories of today are told in real-time.

We can’t continue to tell stories like this as history. Girls of all color deserve to see themselves in women who are, every day, ensuring that this trail not only becomes smoother but also goes farther. In 2018, we will have the first African-American crew member on the International Space Station. Jeanette Epps, Ph.D., may not have set out to be the first but by telling her story in real-time we’re not left wondering if there is a place for girls in math and science.

History helps shape the future. Without stories like these kids, girls especially, grow up thinking they don’t belong. However, we can’t rely on history. Especially not when today we have amazing women of all color doing exceptional work in math and science, breaking down barriers that are remnants of an era we need to put behind us.

This isn’t just a story about black women who pushed “the system”. It’s a story about Jim Crow laws, feminism, self-respect, perseverance, love, and history. It’s all of these that are woven together to create a screenplay and bring to life the story of just three of the women who did the impossible. And helped their country do the impossible at the same time.

We need these movies. They give us hope and perspective, two things we need our children to have so they can go out on their journeys to do great things. And at the same time they show us that sometimes by just doing your job the way you think it should be done, you can make history.

Sara

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