Apr 18, 2013

I Actually Think Girls Might Not Have a STEM Allergy

So, I just read a piece by teachers Jonathan Olsen and Sarah Gross titled, To Attract More Girls to STEM, Bring More Storytelling to Science. It features a lot of rather good arguments for interdisciplinary studies, but I just have to weigh in a little because it’s steeped in the blithe assumption that women just aren’t interested in STEM, so we need to be pulled in with other things that aren’t STEM – such as science-related literature, art, and history.

It’s not their fault. It’s a common assumption – and many people in this dark world of ours secretly wish it were true. The mind-boggling thing is that they started from research that should have told them the opposite.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, tracked about 1500 college-bound students over a decade and found that more women had the highest scores on both the math and the verbal portion of the SAT test than their male counterparts. These women were more likely to pursue non-STEM careers after graduation even though they excelled in those fields in school.

Olsen and Gross think this indicates “many girls’ antipathy toward all things STEM.” I wonder how they imagine those girls got their high SAT scores.

These are women who took in everything they could of all the disciplines, and at the end had to choose which to pursue for life. If you’re an ambitious person – the kind who loves to challenge herself, the kind who wants to do great things, the kind who has so far managed to excel in every subject she’s studied – the biggest question that informs your post-graduation plans is going to be, “Where can I achieve the most?”

It’s the right question to ask, even if we feel a little uneasy with it. It’s noble and right to try to be an excellent steward of your own talents, even if it means setting aside other things that you may love.

The best and brightest students are going to ask this question as early and as often as they can. For whatever reason, it looks like, by graduation time, these young women don’t believe they can accomplish the most in STEM. I don’t know why they believe this; you’d have to ask them, but I can tell you that offering a less rigorous curriculum to accommodate them will not help. Girls are smart. We know when we’re being coddled, and we know that once it’s done to us, it sticks. We know how the need to prove ourselves can siphon off our time and energy. We know there are people out there who want to see us fail out of pure spite, and that if we want to get ahead, we need to avoid them.

I feel a little bit of kinship there. I joined the DIY community because I wanted to learn new tools and use them to build new things. I love turning ideas to practical uses and, when the mood strikes me, I do this with a sewing machine. I was mostly self taught, but I used sewing to learn how things are built.  If they wouldn’t teach me to use a miter box or a voltmeter, people would gladly teach me to use a needle and thread – so, I went to town.

From sewing I taught myself carpentry – not just that I learned to do one after the other, but that one *informed* the other. Once you start reverse-engineering people’s handbags, you’ve hit a sort of tipping point. Things start to fit together.  From carpentry, papercraft, and from papercraft, panel design and laser cutting.

So, nobody in the DIY world is wrong when they assume I know how to sew – even if their only reason for thinking it is that I’m a woman.  They’re wrong when they assume I’m ONLY interested in sewing – that I can’t hold an intelligent conversation about biology or 3D printing or audio processing or SQL. To me, that seems impossible – how could I only know one thing? Everything informs everything else; every discipline is connected. I can’t argue that interdisciplinary teaching is bad – it’s brilliant. It’s natural. It’s already happening in the brains of students all the time.

When people assume that you only know one thing, they try to speak that language, even if it’s a poor language for what they’re trying to say.  They’re working backwards, reaching down to make a primitive connection because they can’t understand just how very tall you are.  This is why I’ve grown to despise the Lilypad Arduino.

I don’t hate the actual product – it’s really quite cool.  The Lilypad is a microcontroller designed for soft circuitry – electronics that are worked into textiles. You can sew it into a project and use it to program systems of sensors, lights, and other components. Adding the sewing aspect to it makes things a bit more involved than they would be tinkering with a regular Arduino board, but you can do some pretty neat stuff with it if you put in the time. The reason I’ve come to dread the name is that I’ve had loads of people suggest I buy one – just because I’m a woman and in the room. Somehow this has turned into the microcontroller starter kit for women, just because in theory, it bridges the gap between something we already know and something we want to learn.

I have no doubt I’ll eventually make some soft circuitry project, but I have very little interest at the moment. When you’ve learned something into the ground, doing it needlessly is a suffocatingly boring proposition, so I’m not too keen on sewing a bunch of stuff to learn electronics. I’ll probably do some robotics, since I know how to build things on the laser cutter so I won’t have any problems building the mechanical parts – plus, I’ll get some new and useful skills. Then, I’ll take what I’ve learned in robotics and prototype my piece’s functions on a regular Arduino and a breadboard, then move it to the Lilypad.

That’s my interdisciplinary roadmap. Notice how it plunges right into the heart of STEM to start with, then comes back out to do the actual interdisciplinary work.  I don’t need to add electronics to my sewing to ease myself in to electronics; I’d learn electronics so I can add them to my sewing.

I can imagine that working the other way, but  it involves me letting others take the lead on design and learning very little.  That’s not why I’m here – to play games, to tinker with special tools and learn special lessons, to constantly explain myself or to “make a statement” with my presence; I’m here to learn, and to get things done. I think those young women are here for the same thing.

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