Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Why Force Science on Children?

This article in the Guardian has some women scientists in my Twitter feed pretty flustered. Girls and science: why the gender gap exists and what to do about it (See @scicurious)

(There's a spoof of it already about boys. Boys and science: The gender gap and how to maintain it)

I see why the women scientists find this topic upsetting, but at the same time, some of it rings true to me. What if it's not just more sexism? What if this stuff would really help?
So, girls deconstruct math concepts verbally. Looking at something on a board or screen is not enough. They need to unpack the problem using language.
This statement rings true to me. I'm working on this multi-year Spartan caravan renovation. Sometimes I need some pieces of wood fabricated that are beyond my hand tools. I measure everything and put the dimensions in Notes in my phone, described in words. I take pictures with the tape measure next to the thing. Then I go see my father at his amazing woodworking shop. He cannot work from my paragraph description. I can read it to him and he makes a diagram. He can only work from the drawing. Once he draws it I can read what I wrote and tell him what dimensions go on what part. I can do diagrams too. I took drafting in high school and college. But it's not what I'm best at so I don't do them nearly as much as my father. I don't know if this is a gender difference or not, but it is clearly a difference.

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There are lots of other differences too. My father is a brilliant genius and can figure out where to put a piece of metal in an old-timey door lock in 3 seconds after I've worked on it for days without realizing that the two pieces I have used to be one piece that broke in two. I am pretty sure it's not simply a matter of me approaching it differently because of my female brain, but what if that's part of it? What if my family had used color coding more when I was a kid? In fact we used it not at all because my brother is color blind.

I'm not prepared to throw away all the helpful hints just because the tone of the article reads like one big insult to women.

I have a weird brain, even compared to women. When there is any lull in the stimulation my brain goes skittering off, invariably making me screw something up, like putting the glue on the wrong side of the thing I'm working on. This in contrast to my major professor in college, the one who falls asleep by working on solving integrals in his head until after a year he has a solution to send in to the integral table people. I said to him, "You know how you go into a room and forget what you went in there to get?" And he replied, "No, that's never happened to me." ?!?!?! I had no idea people like this existed. NEVER IN HIS LIFE! That is how focused this man's brain is. This floors me.

Point is brains are complex and variable. I don't know how much can be generalized about male brains and female brains. I imagine more of it is valid than we want it to be.

Anyway, the whole point of both of these stories is that parents might want to encourage their children to become scientists. Implying that they'll go study that and make it their career. My parents managed this with one simple trick. My father would only pay for us to go to college at Georgia Tech. We knew this from grammar school. They don't teach anything at Georgia Tech but science. You can't get a degree with "Arts" in it. So even though I had dyscalculia and was terrible at arithmetic I pushed on. I liked my science classes, but I was really good at English. But never for a second did I consider a career as a writer. It just wasn't something I thought of. When I got to Georgia Tech I immediately reported for work at the newspaper and was made Editor of the Features Section as a sophomore. I was good at it. I was the best in the state. But after that I had to quit to study because I was flunking out of Industrial Engineering. I had to change my major to Physics to graduate in four years. All this because that's what my dad would pay for. Four years at Georgia Tech, period, done. (Physics only took 190 quarter hours, IE was 210) Of course Physics was some seriously hard stuff for me. I had to make lifelong friends with my professors and get a lot of personal help to do my homework. And they did exactly what that article explains.
Never tell her the answer. Ever 
The point of math is not so much to get the answer but to figure out how to get it. The more you do for your daughter the more you short circuit her self esteem. If she is stuck on something, keep asking questions. Ask her questions all the time in every context, especially domestic ones. "How do you think we should do this?" "Could there be another way?"
My professor knew how to ask questions that would give me the hint to get through the piece of algebra where I was stuck. I would go off and do another page of algebra and get stuck again, and he'd give me a hint that would help me do another page worth. Until finally I got an answer that to me was pretty much indistinguishable from the question. And he would show me that I was done by plugging in real-world values for the variables that would give me units I could understand.

So why did they have to throw in the phrase "especially domestic ones"? That is purely there to infuriate us women scientists. It is extraneous and ruins the message. There was nothing domestic about antenna theory in graduate level electromagnetism. Dr. Patronis did not have to explain wave guides in terms of splashing around in the bathtub. It is insulting the way they wrote this article and it disguises the true parts.

But here's my final point. Yes, you can encourage your children to become scientists. But what if they do suck at it? I suck at it. Compared to my father and Dr. Patronis I am a crap scientist. But I am better at than both of them at Interior Design. But I didn't even know that was a job you had to get a degree for until I applied for a job as one and managed to get hired. I thought about going to school again at 32, one that has an Interior Design degree so I could be a Registered Interior Designer, but Dr. Patronis told me that if I went to the University of Georgia they would revoke my degree from Georgia Tech. So I gave up on Interior Design when I got laid off from that good job I liked.

So why is it ok to encourage your children to be scientists but discourage them from something where they might actually have a better chance at success in a career? When my high school senior female cousin says she is bad at math and she's going to the University of Georgia to major in Undecided, I just bite my tongue and think of how much I liked picking carpet and tile and paint for somebody else to buy. I think how lucky my cousin is to think it's great fun to be in a beauty pageant. I would rather be covered in bees. She probably has people skills I lack and will go far. The only people skills I learned in college was how to get a Physics professor to help me with my homework. (There was a lot of banana bread involved.) But none of it prepared me for the world that expects women to be something I'm not -- a people person. If the world was populated entirely with Physics professors I'd be all set. Unfortunately the opposite is true.

** Update: Here's a contrasting article in the Telegraph from somebody who isn't a scientist. She was told engineering was a vocational trade for "thick" people, not people with good grades like her -- she could work in a professional office. She's "not a thinker" so she was put off any of the sciences.

I am still thinking about this subject and I'm not sure if I made my point very well before. What I'm wondering is what's the use in raising children the way I was raised, to think scientists and engineers are the pinnacle of human existence and everybody else is inferior? I am grateful for my education and wouldn't change it for the world. I am a thinker and a problem solver. I enjoy working on things I don't know how to do. Thanks to making it through classes like Acoustics, Electromagnetism, Thermal and Quantum Physics I am not intimidated by complexity. I look at a 60 year old aircraft manufactured caravan full of mice and rot and think, "I can make this into something amazing." But is that really an advantage over being able to admit you're "not a thinker"? I'd rather claim I was a shoplifter. What kind of prejudice is this for a person? It's sure not going to help you if you want to be anything else but a hermit. Basically I grew up to be somebody who is only comfortable working with other scientists and engineers. Or not working with other people at all. I'm perfectly capable of managing a project from scratch and doing all the work myself. But is that really what parents want for their little girl? To be a hermit?

I may be missing something fundamental here though. I think all these other articles are for people that don't know any scientists or engineers. People have to push science because it's otherwise left out of a life filled with... what? I have no idea. Keep in mind that's my perspective. I have female relatives who weren't educated in the sciences. It's thanks to their example I was able to secure a job as an Interior Designer without any credentials. I hate to agree with that first article again, but I do like colors, and in my experience men engineers don't want anything to do with them. But I failed to learn how my aunts attracted a rich man to marry them and pay for their lovely homes. It may have been part of being in a sorority, which nobody told me about until it was too late. Anyway, in my world careers were to be a teacher or an engineer. I hate children. So I went with engineering. I loved designing products. But I never had any job security or anything like a career. My parents were never happy that I was just a consultant with no tax witholding and gaps of 6 months or more when I had zero income and I couldn't explain what I did for a living to somebody like an NPR radio editor. And now, well now I'm just a bum. My mother still thinks one day I'll just magically get a job and go off to do it. This may be what you're in for if you push your daughters into science.

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