Monday, June 29, 2009

Women in Engineering

While at the Governor's Institute of Vermont (Engineering), one of the directors posed a question during a session: "Why is there such a disparity between the number of men and the number of women who go into engineering?" Silent in the back, the standard answers ran in sequence through my head. Women feel they must choose between career and family, women are not encouraged to "tinker" as children... but these answers have felt (and continue to feel) insufficient, and then a new thought crept in.

Earlier in the week we went over the different types of engineering. During this discussion someone told the joke, "what's the difference between mechanical engineering and civil engineering?... Civil Engineers make targets, and Mechanical Engineers make bombs." In a way, it's pretty funny, on another level it's just really awful.

In that moment talking about women engineering, I thought of this joke, and then I thought about the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative and how more than half the group is comprised of women. Just the night before Courtney, one of the VSHI kids, spoke to the group about how doing this work helped give her life meaning, that the significance of helping people kept her motivated. So here's the thought.

At engineering camp presenters say things like "Who here likes to blow things up!?" which of course draws huge applause. But, truth be told, I don't like blowing things up. If I were to guess, I bet there are a lot of women who would agree.

Perhaps one of the barriers to gender equity in engineering is the "bomb culture" billboarded by lots of the rock stars and role models of engineering. If the main motivation for students studying aerospace is "I like to shoot stuff", that may not be sufficient for the average woman.

Instead, I would suggest encouraging a culture of altruism. Build relationships, solve community problems, help your family - through engineering!

Many of the projects I do excite the men more than the women (I can only speak anecdotally here) such as tennis ball launchers, rockets. But I can only think of a couple projects where the women show just as much or more enthusiasm as the men. These are the house-wiring project, in which students construct parallel and series circuitry in a cardboard doll house they also assemble, and bridge building.

Something I'd like to try next year (if I can think of it), I'd like to survey my students after every project to see how into it they were, and see if there is a discrepancy between male and female enthusiasm or interest. ... now I'll just need to remember this post in 2 months. :P :)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Welcome to the Fifth Grade...

... where "he said/she said" dominates the fragile social culture.

I hesitate to blog about this as people from Montpelier might actually read this, but I think I can keep it anonymous enough to be benign.

Lately there's been some drama among the faculty at school. It's a little awkward to talk about. Frankly, I was oblivious to it at first, but some folks seem pretty upset by it. At our last faculty meeting of the year I definitely got drawn into it, making comments I shouldn't have.

Usually my attitude around faculty meetings is to just not care. If I don't care, then I can't be upset by it. This has been a good method of survival in a system that seems to uniformly makes people bitter, vindictive, and jaded. I've blogged before (I believe) about the need for vigilance against such tendencies, and a red flag went up over my behavior during the last meeting.

The administration during my student teaching experience had a contentious relationship with the faculty, but I'm thankful to report that the administration here has dealt with recent drama as graciously as I can imagine. Now, if only we could figure out how to give each other grace. As a fan of direct communication I am tempted to confront offending teachers and say, "you know when you talk like that you really hurt people", but seeing as it's the end of the year I'm afraid the opportunity has been lost.

So the only solution, then, is to forgive people regardless of where they're at, and start fresh and humbly with a new season next year. And, I might add, I need to not participate in the trashing of other people - for trashing other people.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Modern Physics and the End of the Year

Exam week is so delightful.  I'm not wholly sure the kids would agree, but it sure is cake for me. I've just got to grade and get ready for graduation rehearsal on Wednesday. Oh right, so I'm the senior class advisor this year, which (thus far) has been good on all counts. Even when the seniors pulled their final prank (silly string at the end of the awards ceremony) they had a strong enough collective conscience that they picked it all up when it was over (yay!). 

But before I get too far away from the end of the year, I want to pause a bit and reflect on my favorite unit of the year: topics in modern physics. During this unit I start with a series of 4 lectures because... well... everyone needs to have at least a few foundational pieces in place before they can go forward. These include: Special Relativity, Young's Double Slit Experiment, An Electron in a Box, and Entanglement. From there the kids are assigned certain topics to research and report back to the class on their findings. These topics include: 
Black Holes, Wormholes, and Hawking Radiation
General Relativity and the curvature of space time
Fractals, Chaos Theory, and Conway's Game of Life 
String Theories, M-Theory and other Theories of Everything
Supersymmetry and the subatomic zoo
Godel's Incompleteness Theorem 
AI and the physics of consciousness
Quantum Computing

I think there's more, but that's the short list. Anyway, I frequently feel hesitant to teach this stuff because well... it might be different in 5 years, and who knows if it's even real? Well, the response I got from the kids was remarkably positive. They said it was "the most interesting unit all semester" and that it ought to be longer next year. Interesting. It's last in the semester for a reason, namely as a preventative measure for senioritis. So it has the unfortunate fate of having whatever time it can be afforded before the end of the year and no more, really. But I suppose that's an appropriate fate for a topic whose validity depends on every successive issue of Scientific American.