Thursday, November 27, 2008

Showing Girls Careers They Could Love

While catching up on Slashdot, I found this question asked:
"My niece just took the ACT and got a perfect score on the math section. 25 years ago, when I took the test, the kids who aced the math section were pretty special. Her score, combined with straight A's so far in high school, suggest to me that she might be able to go to a top university (MIT?) based on her math aptitude. The rub is that she doesn't like math or science, even though she finds them easy. She doesn't want to be an engineer or scientist. I thought the folks here would be a great group to ask: What are some creative, not too nerdy professions that nonetheless require a talent for math, engineering, or science?"
I was immediately reminded me of some of the discussions held at the National Conference on Women in Engineering last week. For example, one of the key themes touched upon was the fact that girls may not become interested in science and engineering because they see it as too focused on the tools themselves (computers, wrenches, electronics, whatever) rather than what can be done with them. This goes a bit further than the usual nerdy image and similar kinds of turn-offs.

The comments for the Slashdot article spent some time emphasizing that someone with good math or science skills shouldn't be pushed into doing a career they don't want to do just because of these abilities.

A few examples:
I'm from the UK and I suffered the same fate that you wish to throw upon your daughter - being coerced into a specific degree program at a top London university just because I excelled in that area in my secondary (high) school, without realising myself what a change it would be from the material I had learnt thus far through my life. It certainly didn't do me any favours.

I myself was pressed into (natural) 'science' because math was easy to me, which in the long run (decades) turned out to be a major desaster that I am still trying to recover from.

I agree - my sister was nearly pressured into an engineering route at college by schooling and sponsorship deals but stuck to her guns and has a postgraduate diploma in music performance on two instruments. She's very happy - she can do the music when the work is available for her instruments, and to fill in of the time can get "technical" positions in sales/marketing for engineering companies.

You are better off asking her what she wants to do. What is she interested in? If she has no idea then going to a large university where she'll be exposed to a number of different fields and opportunities is not a bad idea.

In fact, I do not disagree with this sentiment - nobody should be pushed into a certain field because others perceive it as being right for them.

However.

It is worth our time to help young women see what these fields are really all about. If those who might have an aptitude for science or engineering never get a chance to see the real story - outside of the nerdiness, or the focus on tools - they may never discover that they also have a real love for it.

I think this is largely what the original question might really be about: How do I show my niece the amazing things scientists and engineers do to help society? What do they do with all these tools that the fields are so well known for? What makes these careers so fulfilling? By giving the niece the power of this information, perhaps she will make a more informed decision. And if that decision doesn't happen to be science or math or engineering, then that's ok.

2 comments:

aire said...

People are not all about what they're good at. If they have a passion for what they're best at, that's perfect. But then if they don't, it's going to be tough. Any person would feel stressed when they are pushed to be in something they do not want.

I've just recently become more aware of what I need to do in school with regard to jobs. Just started my free online resume at student resume networks like nuResume.com. I have a course that was pushed on me, and even now that I'm near graduating, I still feel like leaving. That makes me wonder what my future'd be like.

David Szent-Gyorgyi said...

You ask, "How do I show my niece the amazing things scientists and engineers do to help society? What do they do with all these tools that the fields are so well known for? What makes these careers so fulfilling?"

My mother shared with me the book that set her on the path to Biochemistry: Microbe Hunters, by Paul de Kruif. This book dramatizes the lives and times of pioneers in the field of microbiology, bringing to life their desire to understand the unknown, develop treatments for illness, and better the lot of humanity. The book dates from 1926, and has been reprinted as recently as 1996.

This book might serve as an inspiration toward research. More than one review of this book on Amazon come from practicing scientists who credit this book with encouraging them toward their field.

The book might turn out to be an encouragement toward the history of science or popularization of science. The material itself is fascinating. That it was written by a practicing scientist might speak to the value that training in a field of scientific research holds for the person writing popularizing work in that field.

The racism in sections of the book may serve as an spur to write a Microbe Hunters for the Twenty-first Century, to reflect the changes in attitudes toward race have changed in the eighty years since de Kruif wrote this book.

The research of those eighty years provides ample material for a new book, and the lives of the researchers more color and depth for such a volume.

Those eighty years have seen prejudice against women in Life Science on top of the struggles for women questioning the pulls of work, life and family -- my mother, who entered the field in the late '40s, was a quiet activist, hoping to serve as an example for the women working on advanced degrees. She hoped to show them that the career, the contribution to the field were within reach. Splitting her efforts cost her time that might have gone to her research, but she balanced the pulls well. She died knowing that she had original work to her credit, husband and children who knew her worth as a scientist and a parent, and researchers in the field who knew from the days of their Master's and Doctoral work in her lab that it is possible to make their research part of a whole life.

You write: "By giving the niece the power of this information, perhaps she will make a more informed decision. And if that decision doesn't happen to be science or math or engineering, then that's ok."

My parents and their colleagues thought likewise: they were deeply pleased that some of their children went into basic research, but were wise enough to not force such a decision. They held the love of the subject and love of humanity to be wonderful things, but they knew that without the love of the subject and the labor, there could be no love for the work. They knew that it would make no sense to ask for such hard work from a child not committed to it.

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