Science Grrl

Arne Duncan and I have often held differing opinions when it comes to our children’s education. Considering that he use to run the school system where my seven-year-old attends school, I have years of experience of yelling back at my radio hoping that Duncan hears my cries. In December the results from another international test to gauge where the world’s children rank were released. The USA did not get an A+. Duncan bemoaned our results in math, science and language and pointed towards China as a threat to our intellectual dominance.

But I’m really not that worried about China.

No, I’m not happy that our kids had an average score. I’m not happy that we’re losing ground to other countries. What I really am worried about is that this news will fuel a new fervor to copy China’s method of educating our kids. And that’s the real bottom line isn’t it? How do we want to educate our children? What kind of children do we want to raise?

“Successful ones!” I hear you. But how do you define successful?

In China children spend all day in school drilling facts and perfecting test prep. Believe me, our kids are perfecting test prep here too. When my daughter came home from kindergarten with homework sheets that had bubbles on it, I nearly lost it. “Really? Are we already teaching them how to fill in standardized test bubbles?” And my daughter attends one of the best public schools in Chicago.

Of course some parents, like Amy Chua, are all for turning our schools into American Chinese schools chock full of rote and consequences. I’m thankful that the Wall Street Journal highlighted her highly offensive parenting style. Because it reveals the end of the path we have allowed our schools to start walking down. That is the true wake-up call. For all our desire to regain our global dominance, we have gutted our children’s education.

Gym? Cut for additional study time. Ditto for art, music and recess. All this despite the fact that music HELPS our children learn and appreciate math better. Research shows that children behave better when given a mid-day recess. The 30 minutes my daughter and her classmates get before school does not meet my standard for a real recess. Play allows children to engage in many things including their imagination, negotiation and of course fitness.

The reality is that while China and other countries may be beating us out on standardized tests, the USA is still winning the overall education game. The number of Chinese students coming to the USA for graduate education continues to climb. They come here for the superior educational experience in all fields, including education theory. The USA is winning in terms of innovation and ideas. We may not be making a lot of widgets in this country, but we are overflowing with ideas on what to make, design and invent. I am though in favor of extending the school day, but not to cram in more studying at the expense of their imagination and well-being.

Yes, we have a lot of work cut out for us here in terms of our education system. Even from my daughter’s very privileged school I can see it. But we aren’t going to rise in the rankings by just teaching our children Chinese  or by increasing their access to test prep. Rather we will, as a country, increase our scientific literacy and achievement by increasing access to early childhood education, making the teaching profession one where dedicated people will flock, increasing the number of science labs and ensuring that every single school has a library. A recent demonstration at Whittier elementary school revealed that almost 200 Chicago Public Schools do not have a library. How can we ever believe we will get our children to learn more and achieve more if they do not have access to a school library?

There are many things we need to do to get our education system in working order. Worrying about China isn’t one of them.

Maybe it’s because my daughter squealed with delight when she saw the cover to the latest catalog that showed up at our house, but I’m not totally aghast with the fact that Mindware is selling a “science is fun!” spa kit. Yes, I still get upset when I see microscopes painted pink to attract girls, I don’t think women in science & engineering need to be sexy to attract the next generation of scientists & engineers and I’m still torn about computer science Barbie.

But my daughter’s seven now and is, well, quite the girly girl.

Yes, she still kicks butt on the soccer field and earns straight As, but she’s also very much in touch with her girly side. She loves to get her nails done (which I limit due to the toxicity of nail polish). She also is finally old enough and I think agile enough to really do her own hair.

She does girly in her own way. Too much pink for me at times, so it wasn’t too much of a shocker when she told me that she was putting the spa kit on her wish list.

To be exact, I handed her the catalog and asked if she wanted anything from it for Solstice or Christmas. She also really wants the Tasty Science kit, a spider robot to scare her dad with, thought about the butterflies, but figured our dogs would eat them, definitely the mega-connect-the-dots books and a whole bunch of other straight-up-non-gendered science toys. Thus my daughter is not being attracted to science by a face mask, rather she sees two of her interests colliding.

And when I’m working in the community or even talking to students on campus who aren’t sure where their place is in science or engineering, I ask them what their passion is. Not what they want to do when they grow up, but their passions. Music? Art? Dance? Hiking? Social networking? I can find the science, engineering, technology or math in that and then I tear into my “get as much math as possible, calculus if you can, done in high school” speech.*

Most of the commenters at The Frisky thought that Jessica was making too much of this. I see their point. But with the glut of “paint it pink and girls will love it!” toys around, I don’t blame her either. The spa kit isn’t what I would get her myself, but as the years swirl past me, I have learned I need to pick my battles. Am I really going to throw down over a spa kit? Plus Mindware’s search box on the left doesn’t ask if you want to search by gender, which is a HUGE sign of progress.

So do I wish my daughter would squeal about a microscope? Kinda. But she did gawk at the chemistry set!

* I say that because most engineering schools/colleges will start their curriculum at calculus for first-year students. Thus if a student enters and isn’t ready for calculus, they can feel (or made to feel) as if they are ‘behind’ and that’s quite an enthusiasm killer. Also, if you are ready for calculus your first year, you have just about the entire college catalog open to you. More math = more choices.

Sandra Guy’s profile of Ford’s Explorer design team schooled us on how to highlight women in engineering by making the women’s work smart but not too girly:

[Jennifer] Brace, a user interface engineer in Ford’s Human-Machine Interface Group, said she made sure that the buttons on the touchscreens accommodate the touch of a woman’s fingernails.

The reality is that many women have long nails. Even my nails get on the longish end of the spectrum, so the idea that touch screens would recognize nails is awesome.

A mom with kids might prefer to see the most fuel-efficient route to her destination, or ask the SUV to find the nearest ice-cream parlor and watch the directions pop up.

Clearly someone knows parenthood. And it’s presented in a non-judgmental way and not in a “oh, look, a mommy car!” way.

Drivers of the new Explorer can give vocal commands for the SUV to “find Starbucks,” or “find parking” or, Richardson’s favorite, “find a shoe store,” and the vehicle’s navigation technology does just that.

Cause what woman doesn’t drive around once in awhile thinking, “If only I could find X?” but can’t take time to stop and type that question into the GPS system? And yes, by using shoe shopping, it targets women, again without being condescending.

Though female engineers are widely scattered among small, medium and large private companies, these women — who are based at Ford Motor Co. headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. — represent the 12.2 percent who work for companies with 25,000 or more employees, according to the National Science Foundation’s 2006 Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System surveys, the latest available.

Julie Levine and Julie Rocco, commonly called the two Julies, work alternate days except for Wednesdays, when they tag-team their job.

In preparing for the Explorer’s introduction at the Ford plant, the two women met many times a week to pore over a matrix with 1,400 items covering 13 pages, trying to figure out solutions for each issue.

Loved this part the most! Guy presents the big issue in the field – the lack of women – but frames it as a positive WITH a solution as to how two of the women stay in the field – job sharing!

The two Julies describe their job-sharing arrangement like a marriage, and credit it with providing them the type of work-life balance that allows them to be involved in their children’s activities.

“We trust each other completely and work toward the same goal,” Rocco said. “That’s what makes it successful.”

Ahhh…such a wonderful end to an inspiring story AND it helps to debunk the myth that women can’t work together in a positive, respectful and empowering manner, especially when working in a dude-dominated field.

This isn’t Guy’s only example of tooting the horn of women in science, engineering and technology without painting it in pink and giggles. I only wish the Sun-Times archives went back further to show you! But there was just something about her latest column that really hit me in the heart and gut. Maybe it was because my campus’ fall semester had just started and I was still on that high I get during the first weeks of reconnecting with returning students and basking in the new energy of new students. Maybe I’m just getting old and sappy. Or maybe I am just damn tired of people thinking that the only way to get girls interested in science is to paint it pink and throw glitter on it. And I love glitter! Instead Guy takes the time to find amazing women doing interesting and socially important (something that is important to many women and girls!) things with their science skills and profiles them. Hopefully parents and teachers are cutting these profiles out and using them in science classes from kindergarten on up to college.

Thanks Sandra Guy!

The things that become viral are unpredictable. Earlier this month a few friends on Facebook posted a link to a Fermilab webpage that showcased 31 seventh graders drawings of scientists before and after a visit with actual scientists. I re-posted it and then a few others did as well. I saw others on Twitter tweeting it. It wasn’t the double rainbow guy viral, but it certainly seemed to be spreading.

All the children learned something about who a scientist is. Sometimes their drawings didn’t change much, but their description did. The biggest difference I noticed was that the myth of a lab coat died that day. All the scientists the kids met that day seemed to wear jeans and sweaters or button down shirts. Which is pretty much what most of the scientists I know do wear.

A few of the drawings really touched me, especially Sandra‘s. Not only did she start off already picturing a woman as a scientist, but after meeting some scientists she tossed the lab coat and commented about all the fun things that scientists do in their lives. Plus her drew a woman and a man holding hands. Awww…

But wait…I started to notice that some of the girls (I tallied 4) started off with a white male scientist and then evolved to a woman scientist. One girl might have gone from woman to man. So what about the boys? All of them stayed with a male scientist drawing. Eric seems to be the only student to change from a white scientist to a non-white scientist. That is a bit unclear as crayon skin tones are hard to decipher in some of the drawings.

Does this mean that boys only met male scientists? Or did they simply draw scientists who they connected with? Did the boys leave Fermilab that day with the idea that girls can be scientists too? Will they support their girlfriends who want to take AP Computer Science? Support their wives who need to embark for three-weeks in the field? Yes, I know I’m being totally heteronormative, but this is where some tension develops.

My job is to ensure that the women majoring in science and engineering on my campus have a supportive community. But you know what, we have a few awesome men who attend our events and request mentors. I like to think it’s because our office is delivering a great service and some men could care less that the program they are attending is run by women, for women and featuring women because in the end, it’s still all science and engineering. And for me, that’s progress.

So while I’m all “Go Girl!” I also know that if we ignore our boys, the revolution will never be complete.

By the way…this drawing experiment? It’s ten years old.

Sexy geek. Sexy nerd. Tina Fey.

Lately it’s been just fine that women are smart…as long as we’re also smoking hot.

In a recent article at WomeneNews, Danica McKeller revealed the name of her upcoming and third in a series of math books for girls – “Hot X: Algebra Exposed.” Oh my.

At the 2010 Chicago Women in Science symposium a speaker’s talk was about how women can use our womanly skills to get ahead in science. It wasn’t a talk about wearing short skirts, but rather embracing ones femininity and the apparent skills that go along with that like multi-tasking. One of my former students told me she was offended by part of that presentation. Another student told me she felt that if she emphasized her girlishness, she would be kicked out of her lab for not being serious or at least not taken seriously. Both agreed that there were some excellent points in the presentation as well.

On one hand, there is still a strong stereotype of who does science and math: a nerd. There are some people who believe that this stereotype is one reason why we don’t have more women in science, technology, engineering and math. Even if this is 10% of the reason, is the answer calendars of nude students? What about model engineers?

Back to McKeller’s book title. She’s making a career out of pinkifying math and making, like, math all girly with questions about text messages and shopping. So what does it mean that she’s making a sexual innuendo in the title of a book aimed at the algebra set? Nowadays, high schools expect kids to be taking algebra freshmen year, if not sooner. So that’s what, 14-15 years in age? Grown women with PhDs modeling is one thing, hell even college students stripping down for a calendar (which will haunt their Senate campaign one day) is a different discussion. They are adults. But should a math book for teens be sexualized? Aren’t their lives sexualized enough?

We have a lot of issues to tackle on this road to fairness and equity. Do we really need to add sex into the mix?

Contrary to what Tina Fey said in “Women News” about no one caring, I care that there are four women in space. But I get what she means. While this accomplishment did make some headlines, it wasn’t given the coverage that a certain golf tournament was given. And that’s really sad.

One of the women orbiting our world is Stephanie Wilson and she took the opportunity to encourage women and women of color to apply to the astronaut program. But before we can get more women to apply to be astronauts we need to get more women and girls to believe that they can do it. Not just outer space, but math, science and engineering.

Last month AAUW released a new report called “Why So Few?” AND they attempted a live webcast of the report release and expert panel. I say attempted as there were some technology issues, but I give them a lot of credit for even attempting a webcast of a live event. We need more webcasts like this. As I was on trying to listen to the presentation, a good number of my colleagues from around the country were on the webcast watching and chatting. We exchanged ideas and resources. How else would we get together like this? So big thumbs up! You can watch the day’s events on the archived video too.

You should also read the report too. It’s a good read for the general public. In other words, you don’t need a Ph.D. to get it. It goes into a lot of basic things, but the one theory I want to leave you with is this: We don’t teach our kids the beauty of struggle.

We far too easily praise our kids when they do something easily. I’m guilty of this with my daughter.

But when was the last time we praised our kids when they struggled? When they took a few attempts to get a math problem correct? To sound out a word and attempt to look it up?

Science is about the struggle to find an answer. When we don’t teach that, we set our kids up to fail when they stumble. Especially our girls, who too often strive for perfection.

Since this report, I’m trying even harder than before, to show my daughter that I am flawed, that I make mistakes and that I struggle to get to an answer. Whether this will get her to be launched into space in 30 years…Who knows? By then, I hope to be vacationing up there.


Last month I held a giveaway and Kim won! In an effort for people to not think I rigged it for one of my good bloggy friends, I asked Twitter to pick a number 1-3 and ratsamy said ‘2.’ Congrats to Kim!

Happy Women’s History Month Girl w/Pen Family!!

The best and worst part of being a science grrl is that most people in my life know that I’m all “Women can do math and science!” I’m such a big cheerleader for math and science that some people are fearful to admit to me that they think science is boring or they hate math. When I go into mini-lectures diagnosing why someone thinks they are bad at math or is in fact bad at math, I usually discover that there was a bad teacher who specifically told my friend that they couldn’t do math, sometimes because my friend was a girl. There are times when we chat and realize that science and engineering was never fully explained or explored.

That’s why I love science documentaries! How else is a kid in the middle of Kansas going to know the amazement of marine biology? How else was math going to reel me in if it weren’t for Donald Duck and his magic billiard shots in Mathmagic Land? We, grown-ups/parents/mentors/awesome aunties, need to find ways to show how awesome science, math, technology and engineering can be for the young people in our lives.

In that spirit, the Smithsonian Channel launched a new series of shows on Sunday focused on women in science with “A Woman Among Wolves.” The show is exciting, highlights women and did I mention exciting? Toss out the old image of scientists stuck inside with shiny white lab coats! They are outside with wolves and bats.

So what if these shows don’t spark an interest in science? Use it as a springboard to talk about other fields. Are the bats too gross? What other animals would the kid in your life want to follow around and watch? Maybe animals aren’t their thing? Plants? Stars? Their MP3 player?

Science is everywhere and with the proper prompt a great conversation can help you introduce a kid to science or engineering. Need some help? Catch the 6th Annual 24 hour Global Marathon For, By and About Women in Engineering. Find a website like SciGirls.

Most of us were raised to think of math and science as intimidating. Something for the chosen few. As a chemistry professor I work with likes to say, “If I can do it, so can you.”

And to start you off in the wonderful world of science and fun, I am giving away a gift pack from the Smithsonian! Leave a comment with your email address and that’s your entry. That’s it.


Do you live in the Cleveland area? Come meet me at the Flora Stone Mather Center for Women at Case Western Reserve University on Thursday, March 18th at 7 pm for “Translating the F-Word: Defining Feminism in a Multicultural Society” with Siobhan Brooks and Courtney Martin.

Last month a research paper hit the education wires with a vengeance. Apparently girls can learn to be anxious about math from their teachers. Holy crow!

Considering that the vast majority of teachers in elementary schools are women, can we pin the dearth of women in science & engineering on Mrs. Hart (my second grade teacher’s real name!)? Ashley doesn’t think so:

But could the girls’ math anxiety be passed on from their male teachers as well?  We won’t know from this article, because no male teachers were part of the study. I also believe that this study does show us some interesting data about female teachers and their female students.  But I also believe we cannot blame female teachers for this whole problem, and in order to figure out what really changes girls’ attitudes toward math and science, we need to conduct a study that is fair to the teachers and the students, and that requires a study that includes teachers and students of all genders.

She has some good points, but after reading the study, I have to disagree. The lack of men teachers in the study is the lack of men teachers period. I also believe that at this moment, we need to focus on why girls learn to be anxious about math. Because despite girls being well represented in higher math classes in high school, they still don’t believe they have what it takes to go into science & engineering. Women who drop out of science and engineering have the same GPA to women who stay [PDF]. And women who leave science & engineering do so with higher grades than the men who stay [PDF]. Anxiety is a real issue with women and girls and we must address it. I also think we need to reexamine how we teach “success” to girls and women.

Tracy Ormsbee confesses that as a mom she has said math anxious things to her daughter, but studies have shown that parents and teachers are two of the top influences in how children choose career paths. If Mom is always avoiding math and Mrs. Gerry (hey to my 1st grade teacher!) is too, what message does that send to a young girl? A girl in the midst of puberty trying to figure out if it’s true that boys don’t like smart girls?

Mrs. Gerry & Mrs. Hart never sent a whiff of math anxiety my way. In fact they never let me slack when it came to math. They set a standard that other teachers carried on until I was in high school.

While I don’t blame women teachers for their math anxiety or for the lack of women going into science & engineering, I do think it is something to examine and address.

I just had the honor to listen to President Shirley Ann Jackson and one of her points about increasing our production of American-born scientists & engineers (men and women) is to increase the scientific literacy of every teacher out there. How can they steer a girl with mad math skills towards computer science if they don’t know what computer scientists do?

Instead let’s take this study and look at how much math and science our elementary teachers do need to know. Let’s look at what their continuing education is teaching them about science & engineering (another point from Pres. Jackson). There isn’t time for blame. There’s only time for action. Let’s get to it.

Do you ever think, “Duh!?” when you read a news story about how fattening movie popcorn or fast food is for us? I get that same feeling when I read that yet another research study has been published proving that girls and boys are equally good at math. How much more proof do we need?

Professor Marcia Linn’s paper focuses in on why there are differences in girls confidence around the world. The answer? Social expectations. [PDF link]

A society’s gendered division of labor fosters the development of gender differences in behavior by affording different restrictions and opportunities to males and females on the basis of their social roles….if the cultural roles that women fulfill do not include math, girls may face both structural obstacles (e.g., formal access to education is limited to boys) and social obstacles (e.g., stereotypes that math is a male domain) that impede their mathematical development.

Many people like to believe that we live in a post-feminist society. The evidence includes Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and women making up half of the workforce. But girls and boys still receive messages on a daily basis that they have roles to play and only those roles. As recently as this past holiday toy buying season, Toys R Us advertised three different magnification power microscopes and  telescopes, guess which one had the lowest power? Yup, the pink one.

Some will argue that we need to pinkify science things to attract girls, but do they also need weaker microscopes too?

And that brings us to another Duh moment…Pink often does stink.

The uproar over the change in mammogram and pap smear recommendations have been volatile to the say the least. We’re talking about women’s lives, plain and simple…right? If we take out the absurdity that came with attaching the recommendations to the current health care/insurance reform debate (like say the GOP crying about the government interfering with a woman’s health decision), we might see the recommendations a bit differently.

With possible reductions in screening, many women have pondered whether their BFF or even they would be here to write about. Jill Zimon writes about how the guidelines might cause women to be more passive about breast cancer. Ironically after we have spent years getting women to actually do mammograms. I say the same with pap smears, but when we are dealing with science, especially health science, we have to weigh many other factors.

Feminist health scientists have won many battles in the last 20 years, but is it worth it to fight for maintaining the status quo in relation to screenings?

If we start at the very beginning of the debate, we must first start with lives lost or endangered by the screenings themselves. The Breast Cancer Fund asks, “Why are we still relying on this method of screening when we have long understood that radiation is a known breast carcinogen?” Mammograms involve putting our lives at risk, but presumably the risk is much smaller than the risk of doing nothing. Where is that tipping point? Is it determined on the individual basis or the population basis? If saving your daughter’s life might cost one other woman’s life is it justified? Do we justify use of mammography if we save 100 women and lose 1? Because honestly that is what I believe we need to talk about. Not cost-saving in dollars, but in lives impacted.

Luckily I have feminist women’s health professionals in my circle and for the most part, they agree with the guidelines BUT they wish that the panel had worked with communications professionals to get the message out in a better way. I agree, but I also wish the Obama administration hadn’t sold out the panel so quickly. Bottom line: For low risk women, it might be better for you to skip a mammogram now and then or wait until you are 50. BUT…BUT…you can only decide this with your physician. So while the GOP jumped on this as a sign that the government really was creating death panels, it was actually an affirmation of women working with their medical teams to provide individualized health plans.

During the HPV vaccination debates of 2007, I heard a lot of concern over whether the vaccine was worth the risk for the benefits. I also heard from women (at the 2007 NOW Conference) who talked about how scary and invasive they felt the follow-up screenings for cervical cancer were to them. They weren’t talking about cervical cancer treatment, but the steps between a bad pap smear and cancer treatment itself. How much are their lives worth compared to vaccination injuries and deaths? Again, the feminist health professionals I know say that the new guidelines, which didn’t cause as much uproar as the mammogram guidelines, are essentially what they have known all along. The risk isn’t worth the unnecessary pap smears and the follow-up treatments. Or is it?

And this is why I advocate for scientific literacy for all, especially women. The next time you hear a woman, no matter her age, wave their hands while saying that they aren’t into science, ask them if they are into their health because that’s what we are talking about. Science is not out there in our gadgets, but it’s right here in our bodies. We also need to ensure that our medical science professionals, from the MDs to the PhDs, have a grasp of ethics as well. They need to be in the community not just to serve, but to learn. Drawing up medical recommendations is a balancing act between the science and the ethics of being a human being, having to weigh all the outcomes to find the best solution.

As a science grrl, I don’t know where that line actually is, but I do know it can’t be drawn by unemotional scientists nor by the scientifically under-literate public. There’s a partnership in there, but each side needs to learn more about the others skills too.