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“Girl” Science

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I love xkcd!

How to get girls into science. Let’s see…

  • Make sure girls know that they’re different: check.
  • Make them feel like there must be a division from boys for a reason: check.
  • Only give them simple experiments that work 100% of the time, so that when they get to classroom situations (or real situations) that don’t, they’ll have unrealistic and demoralizing expectations: check.
  • And make sure their equipment is dumbed down (and pink!) so that girls will understand it: check.
  • Give them things to work on at home to “boost their logical skills”, like cooking and memorizing lists: check.
  • No, wait, let’s not really give them science: check.
  • And give them only truly exceptional role models as superheroes, so that they’ll feel inadequate unless they achieve Nobel-prize status: check.

Perfume and soap classes drive me nuts. They’re fine as classes, and there’s a lot of science behind cosmetics, but don’t bill them as science when the class consists of stirring random stuff together with no thought process as to why it turns out the way it does. Throw in a lab notebook of some sort, and I’ll be placated.

What’s wrong with encouraging everyone in science? Why the need to recruit boys and girls separately? Is there a reason to separate (i.e., make distinctions and put kids in gender-based groups) the sexes, especially at younger ages? There’s now evidence that if girls want to do science, they do it really well. I like to think that there’s no longer doubt (at least in most first-world countries) about whether girls can or should do science. But there still seems to be a lot of doubt about whether girls want to do science. I like this blog quite a bit (new experiments once or twice a week!), but why it’s billed as “for girls” doesn’t make any sense to me (although, they do only simple things and are mostly foolproof and have few suggestions for further study, to make it more, ya know, science-like instead of following directions).

As I’m not the most eloquent person in prose (but just read my lab reports!), here’s Zombie Marie Curie via xkcd to explain how just working on something will make you great.

I mean, I’m female and in science. My story is this: I was in school, minding my own business, when, out of the blue, a spectacular female rockstar scientist appeared and said, “YOU should do SCIENCE!” and I was inspired and I went and got through school, pushed my way through the male-dominated big, bad world and did science!

xkcd rocks!

But that’s not my story.

I had very little science in elementary school, like a lot of elementary schools. Teachers of young kids are just scared of somehow doing science wrong (and really afraid of math). I had strange science teachers in middle school for biology, earth science, and physical science (all male). I had a terrible bio teacher (female), a fantastic chemistry teacher (female), and a great and terrifying physics teacher (male) in high school. Most of the math teachers were male. In college, half of the chemistry department was female. Most of the math department was male, and the female teacher and I didn’t get along very well. The teachers I worked with most closely were female, but I didn’t consciously decide on female teachers… they also happened to be the younger and more in-touch people. I don’t know that I saw a science-female-role-model and thought, “gee, now I think it’s possible!” but I also don’t think I was ever discouraged in sciences.

So how do we, as a society, encourage girls and boys to go into science? AND, if they’re not interested, that’s okay! I’d rather have really enthusiastic people in the field they love than half-hearted drones working on paychecks.


Hypothetical Water Issues

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There’s a issue of making curriculum, especially in science and math classes, relevant to students. There’s also the cross-discipline thing that’s so popular right now (which shouldn’t have to be a thing, but it is). But how to include, say, algebra problems in history class or history problems in algebra class, without being too token-ish about it?

Maybe you don’t.

Make it up instead. This is the whole premise behind a lot of Dan Meyer‘s math and teaching blog, especially his “What Can You Do With This?” series. How do you get students to “buy into” the lesson, rather than just complete the problems? Vi Hart is kind of this idea in practice, noticing patterns and expounding on them.

What can I do with something ubiquitous, like water?

Dr. Tyson says that there are more molecules in a cup of water than cups of water in the Earth’s oceans. Oh yes, the calculations work out (and are a good conversion problem for chemistry students). But that lasts about… 15-20 minutes at most. And while an amazingly cool factoid, isn’t very tangible (and therefore, not very memorable) to most people.

NBC’s coverage of the summer Olympics has a piece on how competitive swimming pools are engineered. Also cool. Not super science-heavy, but things I hadn’t thought about before, especially in silencing waves to promote speed. What other sports need information on waves? How do noise-canceling headphones work? Could you put wave-canceling things on boats to make for faster sailing? (P.S., the segment on para-Olympic engineering is fascinating!)

Maybe it doesn’t have to be entirely realistic. Bring out the curiosity. xkcd‘s what-if on making a rainstorm into a single drop of water.

Hurricanes are gigantic forces of nature, but much of how they move depends on physics of large objects, especially momentum and inertia. So, mass is a big question. Just how much does a hurricane weigh?, via Robert Krulwich on NPR.

Hypothetical Fractions

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Minutia are fascinating. People are enthralled with tiny things. Small dogs are somehow cuter, babies are more appealing than teenagers, dolls and statuettes are highly valued, model cars prized for their construction (or lack thereof).

But that’s all material stuff. What happens in tiny bits of minutes? Slow motion is way more fun to watch than fast-forward.

But all of that is actually possible to watch and determine.

What exactly, really, exactly, would happen if…

…you fall into a black hole?

…you throw a baseball at 0.9c?

NASA Quips and Comics

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What’s even better than Neil deGrasse Tyson defending NASA? xkcd defending Dr. Tyson defending NASA.