Megan Smith, Maria Klawe, Mae Jemison and Cady Coleman at the Makers Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.

Brian Virgo/AOL Inc.

Megan Smith, Maria Klawe, Mae Jemison and Cady Coleman at the Makers Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.

Science


Gwynne Shotwell, the president and COO of SpaceX, has one small request: America should spend more on tech and science education, for both boys and girls, than it does on beer.

“Spending on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education in public education about equals what we spend on beer. Not beer and pizza. Not beer and wine. Beer,” Shotwell said on Tuesday, speaking onstage at the first Makers Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we dropped five points in the last 15-year-olds’ math and science test.”

As the number of young women studying in the overall STEM fields stays stubbornly low — and the quality of science education for both sexes seems to be falling — five leaders in space and tech came together to talk about the situation at the conference. Introduced by Megan Smith, who is a VP at Google’s “moon shot” offshoot Google X (and, full disclosure, is married to Re/code co-executive editor Kara Swisher), the talk featured some of the most powerful people in rocket science: Shotwell, Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe, and NASA astronauts Cady Coleman and Mae Jemison.

“I want to see my children go to Mars. And I’d love to see my grandchildren go to other galaxies,” said Shotwell, who admitted that she became an engineer because she saw one speak and liked her suit and shoes. “I actually feared telling this story for years, but I’m 50 now, so I can do whatever I want.”

Coleman talked about her six months living on the International Space Station, and described how there is truly nothing up there/out there that a woman can’t do. She paused at a slide showing a supply ship, sent by Shotwell, approaching the space station against the backdrop of a cloudy blue Earth. It happened to be coming up from around the Finger Lakes region of New York state.

Smith jumped up and pointed on the map to exactly where the Seneca Falls Convention — the first women’s rights convention — was held in 1848.

“There’s a serendipity,” Smith said. “We’re looking at where we are and where we came from.”

But that path from women uniting in Seneca to women coordinating space stations has been complicated. The number of women in STEM areas (or STEAM — if you add an “A” is for the arts) has not grown steadily. In fact, in some areas, it has rapidly shrunk.

“[Computer science] is the only discipline where the participation of women has dramatically declined,” said Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, a preeminent science and engineering school. “It’s gone from the middle 40s (percentile) in the mid ’80s to 15 percent … and at the same time, the job opportunities are incredible. The starting salaries are above $80,000.”

At Harvey Mudd, women accounted for just 10 percent of computer science majors in 2006, Klawe said, noting that she suspected that the low representation of women might be because of messaging around the course, rather than content. So she rebranded the introduction to the computer science course, adding in the words “creative” and “problem solving” to its description: The course started gaining in popularity among women immediately.

“We made it go from being the most despised course to the most loved course in one year,” Klawe said. In 2013, women accounted for 46 percent of computer science majors at Harvey Mudd.

Today, Klawe is organizing an online course to help middle- and high school teachers learn how to teach computer science in a way that appeals to females.

“This thing about wanting to attract more women — it’s not rocket science. It’s really easy. You just have to make it interesting.”



2 comments
elio_enidias
elio_enidias

"I’d love to see my grandchildren go to other galaxies."

And I'd love to turn into Spider-Man.

SciCheer
SciCheer

How inspiring! Klawe is right! This isn't rocket science. But it would be nice to see more support for unconventional approaches. Funders are a little risk averse.

UCDavis took a leap of faith by partnering with the Science Cheerleaders, 250 current and former NFL, NBA and collegiate cheerleaders pursuing STEM careers. These women work with young women, including youth cheerleaders-of which there are more than three million-to playfully challenge stereotypes, inspire kids to consider STEM careers, and get people from all walks of life involved in science through citizen science projects on SciStarter.

Next month, microbes collected by kids and adults from NFL and NBA stadiums and other landmarks, will be delivered to the International Space Station via SpaceX!

Astronauts will analyze their growth rates and researchers at UCDavis (including Science Cheerleader Wendy Brown, an NFL cheerleader working towards her PhD in biomedical engineering) will analyze their Earth-based counterparts.

Astronauts will swab the inside of the ISS and send those samples to UCDavis for their study on microbiomes in buildings.

Four thousand microbial samples collected by citizen scientists across the country, are being sequenced at Argonne National Lab.

All findings are made public on SpaceMicrobes.org

If readers are in the Philadelphia area, they can see the Science Cheerleaders perform at halftime during the NBA 76ers game on 2/18. Or meet the Science Cheerleaders on the concourse before the game and experience STEM at the Science Expo featuring activities from The Franklin Institute, Academy of Natural Sciences and more.

Ready for the craziest part? Fans will get involved in Project MERCCURI during the third time out of the second quarter when microbe collection kits will be launched from the court into the stands!!

GO SCIENCE !!

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