Tag Archives: STEM

Not a Four-Letter Word

The recent controversy around the Science magazine cover objectifying and dehumanizing trans women highlights not only how trans women may be treated within the scientific community but also how women in general may be treated within the field. The short answer: not well.

In her blog, eastsidekate tells us that when she was 14, she made the decision to go into biology because she read that the percentage of women was much higher in that field than in chemistry or physics. She came out as trans while still in grad school, and found little support and understanding. A long and difficult journey led her to give up her dream of university-level teaching (the full story is well worth reading, though please be warned there is strong language). She’s honest with herself, writing, “I’m not saying that transphobia forced me out of the academia or that I deserved a specific job or any job at all, to be quite blunt.” However, it’s also important to pay attention to how she frames this: “I will say, and I’ll say it until it doesn’t need saying: I don’t regret leaving. I regret feeling the need to make that decision, but I simply don’t think academy is a safe place for people like me.”

Of course, that concept of academia not being safe for transwomen may be extended to women in general. As civil engineer Patricia Valoy points out, when women fail at STEM, it’s “because they’re socialized to believe they don’t belong there and then experience discrimination and lack of mentorship—pushing them into quitting when they do get there.” And as if that wasn’t bad enough, a recent NPR piece by Kara Manke highlighted research by biological anthropologist Kathryn Clancy showing among other things a high incidence of sexual harassment (64%, significantly higher than the 50% found across all professions) among scientists out in the field, the bulk of which is experienced by women. Dr. Clancy observed, “”As horrifying as this data is, I’m really excited to have it out there. Every person who has had this experience will be validated and know there are others out there who have their back. If this keeps just one more woman in science, it is absolutely worth it.”

Science itself, then, can be part of the solution – if we use it correctly. Simple observations can help; as eastsidekate said, “People are watching you, science. They’re not just keeping track of who’s doing the dehumanizing [stuff], but also who (and it’s a lot of you) is sitting on their hands while it goes down. Remember this the next time some administrator wonders aloud about why efforts to summon diversity out of thin air just aren’t working.” And right now, research shows, girls schools and women’s colleges are playing an important part in equipping their graduates to stand firm in the context of this systemic discouragement; Carissa Tudryn Weber ‘96, the recipient of the 2014 Distinguished Alumna Award, is a shining example.

Ultimately, though, “If science (and the academy writ large) is serious about improving the quality and diversity of research, teaching, service, and faculty (and I have no real reason to believe this is the case), folks have got to dismantle the systems that allow this [stuff] to keep happening.” (eastsidekate) As a school whose mission is not only to empower girls and women but also to help shape our culture to welcome their full participation as their authentic selves, Stoneleigh-Burnham is well positioned to be a leader in this fight to ensure that STEM, as Ms. Valoy says, “is not a four-letter word for women.”

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Filed under Gender, Uncategorized

No Retreat, No Surrender

We need to make sure we’re making it possible for people of all genders to feel acknowledged for their contributions and not feel held back by something as arbitrary as their genetics or appearance.
– Emily Graslie

Chief Curiosity Coordinator has to be one of the most awesome job titles ever. The position, created by Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, is held by Emily Graslie, who is STEAM (Science – Technology – Engineering – Art – Mathematics) personified. A studio art major, she interned at the Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum, where she was tapped to host her own show on YouTube, “The Brain Scoop,” to show and discuss the behind-the-scenes workings of a major natural history museum. She also manages a tumblr by the same name.

Ms. Graslie’s path to success is one which may have been impossible a decade ago; certainly, YouTube didn’t begin service until 2005. In 2012, successful vlogger Hank Green, who lives in Missoula, Montana, met Ms. Graslie when she was tapped to guide him around the university’s Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum for one of his shows. She did so well on camera, and provoked so many positive comments, that Mr. Green offered her her own YouTube channel within his science-focused Nerdfighters community. Some of the staffers at the Field Museum of Natural History had seen and liked her show, so when she called and asked permission to film there, they not only gave her permission to do so but also set up three day’s worth of tours, invited her to “after-hours get-togethers,” and eventually offered her her dream job. (Graslie) She was just two years out of college and had not yet even earned her Masters (currently on hold due to work obligations).

Yet, as a woman in science, Ms. Graslie’s career path has not been all sunshine and roses. As NPR correspondent Robert Krulwich noted in the piece Science Reporter Emily Graslie Reads Her Mail – And It’s Not So Nice, “It turns out her mail is, well, troubling.” Much of it focuses on her looks, often in crude terms. On her blog, Ms. Graslie notes, “The remarks are enough to make me want to throw my hands up and retreat to a tiny cabin in the middle of nowhere. (…) Let’s not create that kind of environment for our peers. Let’s be supportive, encouraging. Focus on the content, not the presenter. Ignoring the fact that these comments are uncomfortable is dismissive and counter-productive: let’s have less tolerance for both those comments, and the apathetic attitude attached to how they affect our community.” The video lasts about six minutes, and is well worth watching.

This week is Computer Science Education Week, and our school is participating in the Hour of Code. As experience and comfort with computers becomes increasingly important in our society (as reflected in the growing numbers of college students of all majors who are taking at least a few courses in Computer Science), it will be wonderful for all the kids to join the 4,000,000 students worldwide who are participating. And beyond that, perhaps the experience will awaken, or confirm, or deepen some of the students’ interest in and commitment to STEAM fields.

I am quite certain there is not one member of our community who wants any of our students to be subjected to the kind of harassment and abuse which is a daily part of Ms. Graslie’s life. Yet, she is after all only a few years older than our oldest students. Even the most hopeful of optimists has to concede our future STEAM majors will undoubtedly be facing a certain sexism. Fortunately, they will carry with them the benefits of having attended a girls school – a greater sense of agency, self-esteem derived from within, experience in an environment 100% comfortable with the concept of women loving and being skilled at STEAM. Fortunately, they know that those of us who support them now – parents, friends, faculty – are also working towards a world where they will be unquestioningly accepted for who they are regardless of gender.

My mother, a Physics major and college professor, was subjected throughout her career to the same kind of overt harassment as Ms. Graslie has experienced, and more subtle sexism as well. She has said things are better now than they were, but not as good as they could have been, and not remotely as good as they need to be. It’s time to step up the pace of change. Ms. Graslie’s words provide the direction. It’s up to all of us to join her in taking the lead.

(note: the title of this post was taken from the lyrics to Bruce Springsteen’s song “No Surrender.”)

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, Technology, Women in media

Closing the Gap

I was staying overnight with my brother and his family so I wouldn’t have to get quite so early a start to attend a conference at Simmons College entitled “Dreaming Big: What’s Gender Got to Do With It?” The conference would present a study on middle schoolers and career aspirations and provide opportunities to discuss implications and ideas for follow-up. My brother and sister-in-law enjoy the TV program “Modern Family” (as do I), and after we caught up on our lives for a bit, we settled in to enjoy the evening’s episode. In retrospect, it turned out to be a good way to warm into the conference, as the show, progressive as it is in some ways, does in other ways reflect the kind of stereotyping about work that is too often seen in the media. For one example, neither of the two moms in the show have a salaried job.

Luckily for middle school girls, the media is only the third strongest influence on their career aspirations. As you might expect, schools and parents are the two most dominant influences. And as you might also expect, single-gender environments can have a positive effect. The study being presented used Girls Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts as a proxy for girl-centered organizations, and looked at the views, opinions, and attitudes of 1200 middle schoolers including 487 Girl Scouts, 299 girls who were not in the organization, and 414 boys.

The study painted a picture of middle school girls who, in envisioning their lives as adults, are confident, ambitious, want to enjoy what they do, desire financial security, and value time with family friends. It also showed that girls are more likely than boys to stop work and care for children, more relationship focused, and more wiling to consider jobs historically dominated by women. Such jobs (for example, teaching) continue to be less attractive generally. All the kids believed boys had more career options than girls, and three-quarters of the boys and over half the girls believed boys were better at some jobs than girls. Interestingly, when girls were asked to consider what they would do if they were boys, they were much more likely to choose STEM or athletics. And girls who express an interest in STEM by eighth grade are two to three times more likely to choose that direction that those who do not. Along with these more general findings, the study also showed a measurable, positive effect of girl-centered organizations in helping girls resist the pressures of the culture in which they live and remain true to themselves and what they want out of life. As one of my 8th grade advisees said the other day, “I know what I learned last year. I learned to speak up and to speak with conviction.”

Of course, as long as our culture continues to push back against confident, ambitious girls, our work will not be done. For one thing, those girls who do not have the benefit of the support of girls schools and girl-centered organizations will continue to eclipse themselves to a greater degree than their more fortunate sisters. But even girls who have that additional support have to deal with the notion that significant parts of society may not want them to be all that they can be, and that fact does continue to shape their lives. And realistically, society also puts boys in little boxes that do not necessarily fit them. So really, as we teach girls – and indeed all children – to empower themselves in the face of resistance, we also need to work together to eliminate that resistance.

During a morning session at the conference, noted author and speaker Rachel Simmons was asked, essentially, if she could envision a future where true gender equity will have been achieved. “Not in my lifetime,” she responded. The words hung in the air. And maybe she is right. But if during our lifetimes we have not, to paraphrase Peter Sellars, closed the gap between dream and reality, we will not have done our job. The big dreamers who populate our school and who will join us one day are depending on us. They speak with conviction. Will we?

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Filed under Gender, On Education, On Parenting, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Girls School Advantage

To Infinity… and Beyond

Is algebra necessary?” Andrew Hacker, in a recent op-ed piece for the New York Times, argued that it isn’t, provoking a storm of reaction from math teachers in particular and educators in general. To be fair, once you read past the attention-g rabbing headline, Hacker points out that his “… question extends beyond algebra and applies more broadly to the usual mathematics sequence, from geometry through calculus.” His main points seemed to be that a misplaced focus on rigor leads to kids dropping out and that math taught in schools has little relation to skills needed for success in the workforce. (Hacker) He closes by stating “I want to end on a positive note” and calling for the creation of exciting new courses such as “Citizen Statistics.”

Dan Willingham, a well-known cognitive science professor at the University of Virginia, wrote an excellent response, “Yes, Algebra is necessary” which also quickly spread among online educators. He argues in part that the issue is less the math curriculum itself and more how it is taught. Given the impossibility of truly teaching every single skill that every single student will need for success in life, “The best bet for knowledge that can apply to new situations is an abstract understanding–seeing that apparently different problems have a similar underlying structure. And the best bet for students to gain this abstract understanding is to teach it explicitly… But the explicit teaching of abstractions is not enough. You also need practice in putting the abstractions into concrete situations.”

Many math teachers I know agree that we need to take a look at the standard mathematics sequence in this country. To the best of my knowledge, we are one of the only countries that doesn’t teach math in an integrated fashion, separating Geometry out into its own course. You can definitely argue students should graduate with certain “life skills” in math such as managing personal finances. And there is certainly reason for students to learn basic statistics and related critical thinking skills. But to proceed from a careful discussion of these and other ideas within a standard curriculum to running the risk of implicitly creating a two track system raises serious questions. As Willingham puts it, “Finally, there is the question of income distribution; countries with a better educated populace show smaller income disparity, and suggesting that not everyone needs to learn math raises the question of who will learn it.”

At Stoneleigh-Burnham, beyond doing the best possible job of teaching math, we also have the responsibility to encourage our students as girls and young women to overcome stereotypes. The percentage of women majoring and seeking careers in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) fields has remained consistently low over the last decade (see for example this government report). Yet, as Randie Benedict, Head of the all-girls Ellis School, observed in an excellent op-ed piece, “Girls can do just fine in math, thank you.” Her opinion piece echoes findings listed in a recent report in The Educated Reporter by Emily Richmond, “Girls and STEM Education: Still Waiting for Liftoff.” What do they recommend?

We can begin by fighting gender bias – all of us. That means not just encouraging the girls themselves but also, especially for women, avoiding statements like “I’m not good in math.” Teachers can connect STEM skills to careers in such a way that gender stereotypes are undermined. Providing role models and mentorship is a factor, but perhaps less significantly so than we thought several years ago. Perhaps most importantly, we can be teaching girls a growth model of intelligence wherein persevering and working to improve bring positive results.

Stoneleigh-Burnham is undertaking a new STEM initiative. As was shown in a 2009 study at UCLA, girls’ schools have strong track records increasing the self-confidence of their alumnae in a number of ways – for one, a graduate of a girls school is three times more likely to enter the field of engineering. The potential for this initiative is enormous. While the program will benefit greatly from the leadership of Upper School science/psychology teacher Taylor Williams and the expertise of her new colleague, Middle School math/science teacher Kayla Burke, as well as other returning math and science teachers, the participation and support of the entire community will be necessary.

And, of course, Algebra.


Filed under Admissions, College Prep, Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective