Interview: Mom’s Special Recipe for Gender Equitable Science Education

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I’ve been worried about science. I don’t mean in the usual zombie plague or Skynet sort of way. I’ve been worried about science in the real world, which is honestly much scarier. The current US political climate doesn’t do much to make me feel confident about the future of research and exploration. I also read the same articles that you probably do, about how girls still need encouragement that they can do math and science at all, or how women scientists are ever-struggling for the recognition they deserve. It makes me nervous. I may not work in a lab, but I’m a huge science junkie, and I hope to raise a few little geeks of my own one day. I found myself in need of some reassurance that the next generation might yet turn out to be as science-loving as the rest of us.

I could have been a good writer and done some “research,” but instead I took the easy way out and defaulted to nepotism. I called my mom.

To be fair, my mom’s got some cred. Her name is Nicoline Chambers, and she’s the head of the science department at West High School in Torrance, California. Five years ago, she developed an astrobiology course for high school juniors and seniors. In her words, astrobiology “seeks to answer four questions: where did we come from, how did we get here, where are we going, and are we alone?” She’s given talks at a hefty selection of science and education conferences, including the Astrobiology Institute for Instructors at the University of Hawaii, and the Lunar and Planetary Institute’s Astrobiology Science Conference in Houston. She’s an Education and Public Outreach Consultant at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and she has been invited to speak at the National Association of Biology Teachers Convention on behalf of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. Last week, along with fifteen others, she was named Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year.

She also makes amazing pies, but that really only benefits me.

I chatted with my mom about science education and her views on gender equity within the sciences. In the interest of journalistic integrity, I should inform you that this is not the entire interview. Aside from editing for length, I have redacted the sections relating to the family dog.

When you were a student, did you ever run into the “girls can’t do math or science” thing?

Well, I have to tell you that the only person who I ever got the sense from that math and science were not something that girls in general should be good at was my own mother.

Wait, really?

Absolutely. It definitely colored my perspective on science, which, I’ll be honest, was not enhanced by the shoddy science education I got in middle school. I really did come into high school convinced that I hated science. Part of it, I know, was that my mother sent the message that science was something boys did.

Do you see belief in that stereotype present in your own students? How open would you say your girls are to a career in the STEM fields?

I don’t get the sense that they think they are limited because they’re girls. I think it’s more of a matter of personal interest. There are definitely girls who are very interested in the sciences, and boys who are as well, but I don’t think anybody looks at it as a gender difference. It’s just what you like to do.

Do you think that’s just the climate at your school, or do you think the stereotype is weakening?

I have a really hard time judging that because I don’t get much of an opportunity to go into other schools’ classrooms. I know it is a topic that gets talked about a lot, and I know that educators still perceive it as an issue elsewhere.

Women in science have never been well represented. I remember a textbook that just had a couple pages about “women in science,” and then four hundred pages of dudes. How do you go about educating your students about the women scientists out there?

It has to happen in bits and pieces. About a week ago, I asked my students to describe their mental image of a scientist. To nobody’s surprise, the picture that they described was old, white, male, lab coat, frizzy white hair, anti-social, no interpersonal skills. I try to do a lot of things to dispel that image. One of the first things I do is show them this wonderful film that I have called “Understanding Science.” It’s really just scientists of every color, age, gender, field workers, lab workers, whatever, geeking out about why they love science. Even though we don’t specifically focus on [the demographics], I do point out in passing all the different kinds of people that are professional scientists.

I also have a film on Einstein that talks about some of the women that are never mentioned in the books, particularly the very poignant story of how the physics behind nuclear fission was discovered. Otto Hahn won the Nobel Prize for it, but it was really his lab assistant Lise Meitner who figured it out. There are several other female characters in that film who the kids have never heard of, so I do have them write on that specifically.

What do your kids say about it?

They want to know why they haven’t heard about these people. They find it ridiculously unfair. I think some of them recognize that their exclusion was a reflection of the times. In the book Big Bang [written by Simon Singh] this is repeatedly brought up, these women who were relegated to assistant positions or not paid at all. The kids are really bothered by it. It’s a good history lesson for them, I think.

Other than that, I mainly tend to talk about my colleagues. I know a lot of scientists and educators of all different sizes and shapes, if you will, so I try to talk about all those people.

If the exclusion of women scientists was mainly a sign of the times, why do you think they’re still so under-represented?

That’s a very good question. I don’t know.

But things have changed a bit. I think the classic example is the story of how DNA was discovered. The two people who got the Nobel Prize were James Watson and Francis Crick, but they couldn’t have done it without the crystallography work of Rosalind Franklin, who was working in a neighboring lab. She wasn’t acknowledged for it until after she died. She is definitely in the textbooks now.

In some sense, the textbooks keep away from a lot of male figures, too. It really tends to be just the big, big icons. Einstein, Newton, Galileo. I also have to wonder, too, if part of the [gender disparity] is because the only people we see represented were the heads of their labs, so to speak.

Why do you think it’s important for kids to learn about science even if they don’t end up entering a scientific field?

We live in a world that is entirely depedent on science and technology. Who do you know in our first-world society that could function without it? Look at how science and technology leapfrog off of one another. It’s changing so fast that you can almost not keep up with it.

I know that for a fair contingent of my regular biology students, mine is the last formal science class they will ever take in their lives. A huge part of science education is not training anybody to be future scientists, but teaching people how to be science literate. If you are science literate, you then – as a consumer, voter and taxpayer – can make intelligent decisions about the way that science and technology are going to impact your life. How far do you want to go in keeping an elderly parent alive? How do you feel about public funding for stem cell research? Do you buy the genetically modified tomato in the grocery store? These are not issues that are going to come down the road, these are issues that are here now. If you don’t have some sense of science literacy, you’re either going to make bad decisions, or somebody who has a vested interest in one side or the other is going to manipulate you into making decisions that benefit them.

On the surface, an interdisciplinary subject like astrobiology sounds more like a college course. Why do you think it’s important to teach a class like that at the high school level?

Well, first and foremost, because they’re interested in it! Kids love looking up at the sky. Let’s face it, galaxies are beautiful, and black holes are scary and cool, and it’s all amazing out there! Kids like learning about amazing stuff. [laughter]

But the other factor was a realization that we teach biology, chemistry and physics extremely well, but none of it is any different than when I went to high school thirty years ago. The world has changed, and we weren’t doing as good a job as we could with keeping up with it. And we teach these foundational courses independently. You go to biology, and you learn your quota of biology stuff, and then you’re done. You close the little biology box in your brain, you go on to chemistry, and you close that box, too. You never allow the contents to mix. You never use it to create any kind of understanding. It’s no wonder kids aren’t inspired to go into science careers, because nobody ever made any real sense out of it for them. Astrobiology is so interdisciplinary that you have to put the pieces together. It’s really fun to hear the kids say, “Oh, that’s why I learned that!”

The other wonderful thing is that cutting edge science is changing practically daily. The neutrino thing the other day had me practically suicidal. People always make discoveries right in the middle of my teaching when I don’t have any time to change my lesson plans. [laughter] But it’s a great way of showing kids that not only do we not know everything there is to know, but we hardly know anything of what there is to know! There’s so much left for them to discover.

(Image credit: Hark! A Vagrant Editor’s Note: Psst. Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant book came out this week!)

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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