Blogging Best of Both Worlds: Episode 17, Gender

This week's episode of the podcast Best of Both Worlds was broadly on Gender, although a good bit of the discussion was on gender expectations at work and home, and gender expectations that can be present in toy design and selection.

I'm a physicist so the issues of gender expectation are not unfamiliar to me. I don't have the bandwidth or brain space or ability to write about the issues of gender in physics in one blog post, so I will not attempt to do so. The only thing I would add on that topic is to trust a woman in physics when they say they have faced issues related to their gender. I would also add that men face gender assumptions as well in physics, often assumptions that they will be very aggressive in leveling up in employment or in badgering for a position, or that something is wrong if they are not. We would do well in physics to avoid gender stereotypes for anyone.

Regarding toys, it has been fun to think about what toys I was given as a child that helped me develop into the scientist I am today. I remember fondly getting a chemistry set when I was around 8 or 9 years old. My dad tinkered with computers and tended to give me free rein of their use from a very early age. I remember using a Tandy 1000 computer when I was quite young - it used cassette tapes for code! I believe I received a microscope at one point. My family also invested in experiences for me - I went to Space Camp when I was in sixth grade (my whole class did), and for a couple of summers I went to a one-week summer enrichment program for middle school students at the institution where I eventually went to college. 

I do want to add a point about gifts and experiences for children to help them develop interest in science. I am no expert on program development, but I can report on what I see in students who come to college. I have seen several students who have been through some programs that have been clearly very well funded and intentioned and have been critical in developing the students' interest in science, but they seem to have not given students an idea of the technical and math skills, and attention to rigor, that is needed for work in science. I think the same is true of toys that are meant to foster interest in science. To be honest, we see students all the time who are quite shocked that physics involves calculus, or that physics is more than blowing things up. They don't have a good sense of physics as a way of life, a way of seeing the world, a body of knowledge that is constantly being updated and adapted as we learn more about the universe.

One of the most critical experiences for me in my trajectory towards being a scientist was the role of my high school chemistry and physics teacher (he taught both). This was in the late 1990s. When I think back to his pedagogy, it was problem-based in a very low-cost way, and he assigned a lot of activities that helped us develop as scientists. We had very, very rigorous expectations for equipment, doing formal check-in/check-out of our lab bench areas each week and at the beginning and ends of the semesters, excellent preparation for the sometimes boring work of equipment maintenance in science. We had strict expectations on handling chemicals and cleaning up and disposing of them properly. We did competitions in class, such as building bridges out of toothpicks. We used TI-83 calculators in class to do basic model fitting, so we had some experience in coding a bit and relying on a device to do some stats, but it we weren't glued to devices. He had us do summative in-class projects that required us to explain what we were doing. In chemistry, we worked in groups of three to present an experiment to the class and to talk about what it demonstrated and what we learned. (I will never forget his patient, calm face when one group accidentally got a towel too close to a bunsen burner.) In physics, his end-of-the-year assignment was probably what clicked my mind into focusing on going into science, if I had to pick one singular event: each student had to go in front of the class and he would ask that student a question about something that was related to what we learned formally in class but required us to put several things together, on our feet, to make connections. My question was about transformers in power lines. I will never forget the feeling of putting together the ideas in my mind and thinking aloud through the process. I was thinking like a scientist,  and it was really tough, but it was so much fun. (And, I want to add, my teacher did all this wonderful support of us while disabled and in a motorized wheelchair.) All of these course elements were inclusive of all students, with no differentiation by gender; they were fun but also true to what science is. 

So, to give my two cents' worth on what can be useful for encouraging kids of any gender to pursue science: give them experiences and toys that both pique their interests and involve the actual process of science, as mundane and rigorous as it can be. When we had the Tandy 1000 computer, I did basic coding with it (and experienced all of that frustration AND fun). If you get your child a telescope, have them help you put it together and compile a schedule of what you will view and when, making a chart of what they have seen (lab notebook keeping!). Make sure they have a dedicated spot for its storage. Have them explain to a visitor to your home how it works and what they have learned from it. Even if you get something for them at a quite young age (maybe Magnatiles?), you can talk to them about the physical basis of how the toy works and make sure they learn to take good care of the toy. 

ETA: (Thanks to Chad Orzel for prompting me to make my point a bit more clear.) There are many great things going on to help introduce children and teenagers to science, including great STEM toys and programming. But without exposure to how science really works, the rigor needed and the mundane moments and the perspective that it is a way of thinking and a lot of argument building and evidence consideration, not just “wow” moments all the time, I think a segment of students have expectations that are broken when they enter a degree program - and this is a bigger problem than making sure that girls get to play with STEM toys. Maybe they are shocked at what is actually involved, or they have imposter syndrome because they think they can’t ever do what is needed or participate with their peers. My hypothesis is that realistic exposure to science at an early age can set appropriate expectations, build confidence and skills, and help everyone, especially those that do not conform to gender expectations.

Friends, what are you thinking about related to gender nowadays?