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I might be *gasp* a role model March 15, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, feminism, gifted, math, societal commentary, younger son.
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My younger son is in chess club, and one of the girls, whom I’ll call K, is in his class and also in the club.  K is a pretty bright cookie as she has won things like spelling bee and chess tournaments.  I was picking him up from the club on Tuesday when K said hi as she walked by.  A couple seconds later, K came back to ask me if I would be coming to their class for our weekly math lesson this week.  I said I would, and she cheerily went on her way.

I went in for our lesson earlier today, only to find that the teacher was sick.  Rather than work with the smaller group of kids as planned, I offered to read the whole class a math story (which I’ve been doing every other week).  So I read Sir Cumference and the Isle of Immeter.  They were all very excited, and there was a lot of discussion about the story.

At the end of the session, one of the girls came up to me (whom I’ll call F).  F isn’t in the group I work with regularly, so I don’t know much about her other than she’s not as advanced in math. (I assumed that meant she wasn’t all that interested in it.) She’d been in the restroom and had missed the first page of the story and wanted to see it.  I said I could leave the book with her to read.  She was very excited.  Then K came up and gave me a hug, and after she was finished, F gave me a hug.  I was rather shocked, though certainly not unhappy about it.

I’m trying to process it, though, and it seems interesting in light of a couple semi-related things.  First, I came across an article about how reducing academic pressure helps kids succeed.  Given the younger boy was having huge difficulties with perfectionism, my response to this was, I admit, nothing more than, “Duh!”  We’re helping him to deal with this by using his math program.  Some days he does very well, other days, he’ll get somewhere between 75% and 80% right.  I try to tell him that I appreciate his hard work, and that if he doesn’t get it right, it only means he needs more practice.  He’s also learning that he almost never gets 100%…and that is making him okay with doing things wrong.  Yeah, he still gets frustrated, but he’s not so scared to try anymore.

However, I realized that I’m kind of doing this with the kids I’ve been working with at school.  I’m doing stuff with them that I don’t completely expect them to get, but I also don’t get upset if they get it wrong.  And there’s no grades. We’re doing it to have fun and to learn, and I think the kids really like doing something just for fun.

Another recent event was when a coworker started lamenting to me how his daughters, who are middle school aged, seem uninterested in math.  Being an engineer, he’s very disappointed, especially because they seem to be quite good at it.  I suggested he get the books written by Danica McKellar and give them to his daughters.

Now, I have to say that I can’t imagine myself reading those books when I was that age (of course, I could very well be wrong – although I had some unusual role models).  On the other hand, I figure that if there are bright girls out there who are eschewing math and these books get them interested, then I’m all for it.  It turns out that my coworker did give them the books and, even better, they really seem to be enjoying them.  Maybe they won’t turn into math majors, but he seems a lot happier, and they may be enjoying math more.

I’ve talked about efforts like Nerd Girls in the past, and I have to admit I felt it was stupid to try to ‘girlify’ engineering to attract women.  On the other hand, I’m obviously the kind of woman who wasn’t very stuck on social messages about women in science or engineering.  It’s not hard to imagine that there are a lot of young, intelligent girls out there who feel social pressure to avoid technical areas because they lack role models.  Maybe some of those girls really need things like Nerd Girls and Danica’s books.  I don’t have any daughters, so I can’t really say much based on experience.  After my experience today, though, I’m wondering if female role models are far more important to some girls than I ever thought.


Scientist, with kids February 19, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, engineering, family, feminism, grad school, homeschooling, older son, personal, physics, research, science, societal commentary.
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FSP has a post asking about the Local Mom Effect.  That is, she wonders if being in a department with more women professors who have kids affects the outlook of younger women in the field.  I find this post interesting…but also, I hate to say it, irrelevant.

Let’s put it this way: what women?!

When I started school at Caltech, I knew of two women professors out of all of math, physics, and astronomy.  I only ever met one of them, knew she had no kids. I knew nothing about the other professor.  When I decided to go back to school a few years later, I ended up in a physics dept. where the professors were all men.  Later, I ended up in an electrical engineering department where the professors were all men.

I guess that, in my mind, the notion of being one of the few women in the department was no different than being one of the few women with kids in the department.  When I went back to school, I had a kid already, so it wasn’t like I really had a choice about whether or not to be a childless woman in physics or engineering.

I will say that when I originally got pregnant as an undergrad at Caltech, I was told by my advisor that women couldn’t do calculus while pregnant and that I should drop out.  Of course, he was a guy, so I seriously doubted he understood how women’s brains work while pregnant.  (And it turns out that I can do calculus great while pregnant…I just can’t speak a full sentence coherently.)  However, I guess I never took it as a message that women with kids don’t belong in science…I inferred that he meant it more personally, and that I myself was not a good fit for science.  (Fortunately, major hopping got boring after a while, I ended up back in physics.)

When I went back to school, however, I felt that being the only woman or one of a few was very advantageous for several reasons.  First, if I was the only woman or one of a very small number, I was already an oddity.  A woman with kids is probably not much more odd than a woman without, and there was really no one to compare myself to (or say that I was doing it wrong).  Second, I went back to school in North Dakota, and it really seems like people here more or less expect you to have kids no matter what you’re doing.  I know that grates on some people, but for me, it was a blessing: having kids is just another part of life, and most people here learn to do their jobs while having them.  (Also, I can’t recall anyone having a fit if I said I couldn’t make it to something because of kid-related issues.)  Third, I was older than the average undergraduate or even grad student, so I think people assumed that it was pretty normal for someone my age to have kids.  The fact that the younger students didn’t have kids was simply a function of age and never made me feel self-conscious that I did have kids.  Finally, when I started my MS, my advisor was fine with the fact that I was homeschooling the older boy and would only be doing my degree part-time.  He said this was really no different than other students in the department who were working full-time and pursing their degree part-time, as well.

I have been told, especially when doing my PhD classes, that it was “really cool to see a woman in science with kids”, especially by some fellow grad students.  Until I started my PhD, I really hadn’t expected it to be a big deal.  It had never occurred to me that I might be a “role model”…but I keep hearing it more than I ever expected to. I also suspect it’s because I often had kids with me or family issues that were more apparent to fellow grad students.  Many professors try to maintain a more professional relationship with their students, and it doesn’t surprise me that many grad students don’t see how having kids affects the lives of the professors or that they don’t realize some professors have kids at all.

Realistically, I only got here because I didn’t really know that what I was doing was unusual in any way.  If I had been surrounded by women who had kids but never let it on or didn’t have kids, I might have felt self-conscious about being a mom already.  With no one to compare to, however, I just assumed that it wasn’t any more abnormal than a woman without kids.

Repost: When I grow up, I want to be just like… May 4, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, societal commentary.
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Note: In honor of Star Wars Day, I thought this was rather appropriate.  And of course, May the Fourth be with you!

I had several interviews for undergrad colleges. I remember all of them fairly well, especially the one I didn’t like. The reason I didn’t like this particular interview was because the guy interviewing me asked me who my hero was.
I hadn’t thought about it a lot, and the first plausible person I thought of was Stephen Hawking. (Einstein is a bit too cliche.) My reasoning was that he was a very smart man who was able to explain complicated topics to laymen. The guy actually argued with me and made me defend my reasons, although I suspected he didn’t believe them. (I won’t get into what he said, but it wasn’t very nice.)

Truth be told, however, I had decided long ago that my real hero in life is Princess Leia. I really don’t want to think about what this guy would have said if I had mentioned a fictional character from a sci-fi cult classic. It’s even a little odd to admit this now, when I’m a mom with kids.

I was two years old when Star Wars came out. Because this was before the age when everyone owned a VCR, it was a big deal to replay Star Wars on TV. When I was five, I saw it for the first time.

When Princess Leia picked up that blaster on the Death Star and started shooting storm troopers, she rocked my world. I don’t know if George Lucas meant to, but he turned me into a feminist. In my childhood, she was the one “role model” I had who was strong, kind, and sexy. She could look dignified as a princess but shoot at storm troupers. She could pretend to be a bounty hunter but feel love for Han. She could be dressed in rather revealing clothing and still choke Jabba. And no one ever tried to tell her that she couldn’t or shouldn’t be doing these things.

I realize that in my marginally boring real life, the things I’m doing aren’t nearly as dramatic or captivating. (I’m sure my kids wish they were…) It really helps, though to imagine that there could a woman to face challenges head on and to work toward achieving her goal. No, I’m not going to single-handedly eliminate the source of evil in the universe, but I can do my part to be part of the rebellion. I like having a role model who wasn’t afraid in the face of overwhelming opposition.

And as far as Stephen Hawking goes, I still admire anyone who can explain physics to a non-physicist and they can at least feel like they get it. Those sorts of skills are useful, too…but they aren’t quite as motivational as blasting away storm troupers.

Of course, now there’s Sam Carter, who can blow away space aliens, tops Stephen Hawking in physics, and whose hair always looks cooler than the funky hair buns ever did.

I hope that in my life, I can face up to challenges the way any of these folks do…fictional or not.

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