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August 29, 2007

Back to School: Science and Gender

Check out the front page of the National Science Foundation website today. Their lead story, "Back to School: Science and Gender" presents and refutes Five Myths about Girls and Science

1. Myth: From the time they start school, most girls are less interested in science than boys are.

2. Myth: Classroom interventions that work to increase girls' interest in STEM run the risk of turning off the boys.

3. Myth: Science and math teachers are no longer biased toward their male students.

4. Myth: When girls just aren't interested in science, parents can't do much to motivate them.

5. Myth: At the college level, changing the STEM curriculum runs the risk of watering down important "sink or swim" coursework.

It's short, interesting and highlights the good folks at NSF who fund FairerScience, the Gender in Science and Engineering (GSE) Program

August 24, 2007

What's in our genes?

This month's theme for the Scientiae Carnival is "Unleash", and I've been thinking about it in personal terms, not necessarily in FairerScience terms. But then I read, Boys like blue, girls like pink - it's in our genes and I decided that what I'd really like to do for the carnival is unleash some scorn.

Oh, sure, I know, there's no challenge in unleashing scorn on media coverage of this sort of thing, but, come on. How can I resist?

In this month's Current Biology, Anya C. Hurlbert and Yazhu Ling's article, Biological components of sex differences in color preference.

Now, I don't even have to read beyond the titles of these pieces to know where some of the problems I'm going to have are. First, to say that there are biological components in color preferences is not to say, for example, that the only thing in play is genetics. Second, there's more to biology than genes. That is, my genes my predispose me to be a certain height, but the nutrition I receive as a child has a major influence on how tall I become. Is nutrition a matter of nature (it's how my biological makeup reacts to available resources) or nurture (because it's about my environment)? Maybe my genes predispose me to prefer colors for which I receive social encouragement in liking.

Of course, thanks to Annalee Newitz and her excellent AAAS presentation last February, we know that journalists are encouraged to read and report scientific results in the most attention-grabbing ways. And that's another thing about which I could unleash a certain amount of scorn.

I could go on into a critique of the article as a whole, or some of the questions the study raises, but I don't have that much space, so instead, I'll invite you to unleash your thoughts, either on this specific case of a study and the reporting about it, or on the phenomenon in general.

August 21, 2007

On robots, classrooms and numbers…

So this morning, a link to a June article came across my desk and I thought I’d share a bit about the story. It focused on a joint project between Bryn Mawr College and Georgia Tech that brought robots into the classroom to try to engage more women into the computer field. The article referenced a recent study by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) that reported enrollment in undergrad CS programs had dropped 70% from 2000-2005—70%! I was surprised at the number. According to the article, universities noted one reason for the decline was that the courses are boring—hence, now there are robots responding to students’ codes in the Bryn Mawr computer classrooms. Seems like a great initiative. I’ll keep my eye on this story to see what comes of it next.

Also, in looking a little closer at this story, I found the NCWIT “By the Numbers” fact sheet that spelled out recent stats on women and IT—it’s worth a look.


PS from Pat: The folks at NCWIT are really great and not just because they're located in Boulder. Their mission "is to ensure that women are fully represented in the influential world of information technology and computing." And they have lots of free resources to help make that happen.

August 17, 2007

Now Why Didn't I Think Of That?

Since I was surfing the web (oh ok I was avoiding writing a report), I thought I would check out on what was happening over at the American Physical Society's APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (CSWP) . And yes that is what I do for fun sometimes. Hey my first publication was in physics, on radioactive decay and no I am not going to write a book "Physics Doesn't Suck" although I think it is a great idea. Imitating the Dummies' series perhaps we should start a whole "[Insert name of field here] Doesn't Suck" series. Anyone want to check it out with Danica McKellar?

But I digress. What I really wanted to write about was Female Friendly Physics Graduate Programs. CSWP has been surveying colleges and universities about their female friendly policies, asking physics' department chairs to answer the following questions:
1. How many tenure-track or tenured faculty -- male/female?
2. How many graduate students ? -- male/female?
3. Is there a family leave policy for graduate students? If so, describe.
4. Is there family health insurance available for graduate students? Is it included in the stipend?
5. In a paragraph, please describe why someone applying to graduate school who is interested in a female-friendly department should choose your institution.

They have responses from 145 institutions! So check out your favorite, or your least favorite, institution.

August 15, 2007

Hooray for Love and FairerScience

Ah yes that is a title you may not have expected to get here. Pat and Tom who have been in love and working for social justice for sooo many years that we don't think we can count that high want to give our best wishes to Dinny Adams and Nancy Hopkins (yes that Nancy Hopkins ) on their recent marriage and their continued work for making life better for women in science and everyone else.

August 11, 2007

Book, book, Pat has a book

In the spirit of shameless self promotion, I would like to announce that Toni Clewell and my book Good Schools in Poor Neighborhoods: Defying Demographics, Achieving Success is out. Sorry folks this one costs money, $29.50; (even from Amazon, big sigh) but really, it's worth it.

Rather than FairerScience, the book is more broad, more FairerEducation. The press release says we combine "solid data from original research with lively vignettes and vivid quotes from principals, teachers, parents, and students to present a picture of exceptional elementary schools in challenging academic environments." Yeah us! (Oh ok it is a press release but still..)

While I'm sure you are going to read the book, just in case, here are some results that everyone who cares about elementary education should know.

In these very different districts, we found the following characteristics that set successful schools apart from their lower-performing counterparts:
• Highly effective school principals are instructional leaders, encouraging innovation and other improvements.
• Highly effective schools have a higher-quality teaching force who appear more committed to their schools and more willing to “go the extra mile.”
• Teachers in highly effective schools apply discipline more consistently and are more likely to take responsibility for disciplining their own and other teachers’ students.
• Teachers in highly effective schools have higher expectations for their students. They are also more likely to take responsibility for their students’ learning, and their principals are much more likely to expect teachers to do so.

With all the bad news out about education, it is nice to see, as FairerScience friend and adviser Jane Kahle says "poor urban schools can make a difference and some of them do."

PS I just wished we had named the book "Some Urban Schools Don't Suck." Hey it's working for
Danica McKellar .

August 09, 2007

Hyperbolic space: modeling math with crochet

A friend on my blog feed recently posted a link to MAKER Saturday Webcasts, which has been running webcasts focusing on creative makers from the SF Bay area every Saturday this summer. Among other very cool things, there's a great discussion of hyperbolic space:

This really isn't news to geeky fiber artists or mathematicians, but several years ago, Cornell mathematician Daina Taimina came up with something that mathematicians had been trying to figure out for years: a way to model hyperbolic space -- using knitting or crochet.

If you follow the link to the MAKER webcasts and scroll down to "Making Hyperbolic Crochet with Margaret Wertheim", you can see a fun interview and discussion about this topic and its convoluted history with Margaret Wertheim of The Institute for Figuring.

This page at The Institute for Figuring's site includes a review and discussion of hyperbolic space and Dr. Taimina's breakthrough in representing this kind of space through crochet (and, if I might say so, quite visually appealing creations).

Favorite quote from the webcast: "Mathematicians spent 2000 years trying to prove that hyperbolic structure was impossible, but sea slugs and nudibranchs didn't know that."

This is very cool stuff, and I really love the interaction of crafts and mathematics as a way to demonstrate how not only do you need math to do crafts (if I have 6 stitches per inch and I want a six inch swatch of fabric, all I need is a simple algebraic equation to figure out how many stitches I need) but you can also make a major breakthrough in mathematics by seeing the world... craftily.

August 08, 2007

Let the countdown begin

Sally Ride, the first American woman to travel in space, has a new blog . Currently the blog is following the adventures of educator-astronaut Barbara Morgan as she prepares to launch into space—hopefully today if the weather and technology are in sync. So, take a look and follow one astronaut through another one's eyes.

Thanks to Donna Tambascio for the link.

August 04, 2007

Math Doesn't Suck

Now that's a title! And it's of a book by actress and mathematician Danica McKellar . Yes you read that correctly "actress and mathematician".

Danica is probably best known as Winnie from the Wonder Years; but as an undergraduate at UCLA she co-authored a math proof, proving an original math theorem. For the geeks among us, she even has an Erdős–Bacon number (it's 6). The book and related website are just out. My copy of the book hasn't shown up yet and when it does I'll post about it.

The website and the pieces I've read from the book are very, well, girly, in a worried about broken nails, lip gloss kinda way. An interesting Newsweek article about the book asks "do girls really need a female-friendly math books today?" I'm torn about that. On one hand I know the research that says people do better in mathematics (and science) when the context is familiar to them. On the other hand boy do I worry about the stereotypes this supports. Girls do powder puff math; boys do… More on that after I've read the book.

In the meantime we have a middle school math book written by an actress who says things like:

"Whether you're shy or just a super-considerate person, you may feel tempted to dumb yourself down sometimes to make someone else feel better about themselves...especially guys. But this is dangerous! It's one thing to be considerate, it's another thing entirely to sell yourself short."

Go Danica go!

PS In the spirit of full disclosure I have to tell you I am quoted in the Newsweek piece and I really liked the author
Peg Tyre .

August 02, 2007

They Got It Right!

Ok we at FairerScience have been known to be a little snippy about reporters (and researchers) who stick with the superficial and stereotypic. This time everyone got it right. Salary, Gender and the Social Cost of Haggling by Washington Post staff writer Shankar Vedantam is a really nice write up of a darn good piece of research by Linda C. Babcock , Hannah Riley Bowles and Lei Lai .

There has been lots and lots of research finding men get paid more than women (duh) and that a significant amount of the difference is due to men being more willing to ask for more money. You know, the old "nothing ventured; nothing gained" thing. And of course the response has been to help women to become more assertive, to be more willing to ask for more. It is the "fix the woman" thing that we have all had done to us and that, let's face it, we have been known to do to ourselves and to others.

These researchers, one of whom did much of the earlier research, have gone on beyond "conventional wisdom" to explore what might behind women's reasons for being less apt to ask for raises. See what they found:

"Although it may well be true that women often hurt themselves by not trying to negotiate, this study found that women's reluctance was based on an entirely reasonable and accurate view of how they were likely to be treated if they did. Both men and women were more likely to subtly penalize women who asked for more -- the perception was that women who asked for more were "less nice"."

Their conclusion:

"It is not that women always act one way and men act another way; it tends to be moderated by situational factors," Bowles said. "The point of this paper is: Yes, there is an economic rationale to negotiate, but you have to weigh that against social risks of negotiating. What we show is those risks are higher for women than for men."

Good work, good reporting and interesting results. Ah it is a good day for FairerScience.

PS Thanks to FairerScience friend David Mortman for bringing the article to our attention.