Women in STEM (Energy &) Matter!

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I dreaded my last block before it began. As a hard and fast claimer of, “not being a science person,” I struggled to sleep through my nerves the night before my first day of “Energy & Matter: Solar Power.” I did not know what to expect, and was terrified of hearing the words, “chemicals,” and “atoms,” and automatically shutting down mentally and physically. Besides taking, and thoroughly enjoying, Steve Quane’s “Earth Systems and Human Impacts” course last spring, my experiences with the physical sciences were slim, and generally miserable. Energy and Matter would breach into subjects I had literally never looked into before: physics and chemistry. Every physical science teacher I had experienced in my high school, middle school, and elementary career, failed to ignite any sort of fire of passion and excitement inside me during class and labs, and I had become rather complacent in my lack of scientific knowledge: especially in chemistry and physics. Everything seemed so small, how could I possibly conceptualize it? In addition to these fears, my professor for Energy & Matter was a teaching fellow, and new tutor at Quest; I had zero knowledge on what to expect of her teaching style.

Enter “New Tutor” Emma Davy. With a huge smile, self deprecating sense of humor, and a seemingly unwavering amount of “stoke” for her subject, I felt instantly relieved from the second I stepped through the doors of her classroom. By the end of the first day of class, my anxiety dropped two levels because of two things: her heaping amount of accessibility towards students who had difficulty with the material (she answered every one of my questions with respect and confidence, regardless of how stupid the question was), and her absolute love of her field. Throughout the next few weeks, I struggled, learned, succeeded, failed, but never once experienced a day that I wasn’t excited to come to class… every single day. I was not the only one feeling this way; my entire block would walk away from each class raving about how much fun we were having, and how incredible a teacher she was. I could not believe what was happening… I was actually enjoying science! Immensely!

It was not until further into class that I began to realize the full impact this course had on me, in an unexpected way. Our second week in, we dedicated an entire class to “Women in STEM,” or, “Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math” and the “leaky pipeline” effect. The Leaky Pipeline is a metaphor used to describe the phenomenon of women dropping out of STEM fields at all stages of their careers. STEM fields are notorious for producing very few leaders who are women, and the pipeline model is used as a metaphor that if you pour water (young women) into a pipeline, and (due to the historical prevalence of sexism within STEM subjects) it leaks along the way (girls and women dropping out at various times), very little water (professional women leaders) will emerge at the end of the pipeline. This metaphor has been backed by statisticians all across the world, reinforcing the existence of this gender gap. During this day of class, we discussed ways to mend this serious gender gap in STEM, and the most repeated topic of conversation was a phenomenon called “representation.” Representation as an adverse to marginalization, is the idea that by seeing strong leaders that you feel represent, or relate, to you, you are more likely to feel accepted, and like you “belong” within that field. Representation is lacking immensely in STEM subjects among women, people of color, and other minorities.

It was then that I realized why I felt so accepted, encouraged, and powerful in this class. It hit me. Fighting back tears, I admitted to myself, that this was honestly the first time I have “seen myself” in a science teacher, and felt like I could really relate to a teacher who specializes in the physical sciences.

See, I was a textbook child nerd. By the time I was 10, I had read the Harry Potter series seven times, (had a bowl cut), loved school more than anything, watched sci-fi, read mystery books in order to challenge myself to figure out the mystery before the book told me, and raised my hand so often in class that people called me Hermione, and my teachers told me to “stop being bossy.” I loved learning how things worked, how people worked, and how the world worked. In early elementary school, my love for science began to fade; science seemed so equated with dork-i-ness in mass media, and the pressure to lose the “nerd” inside me, and become a “girl” was high. As far as I knew, boys didn’t like nerd girls, nerd girls were annoying, and no-one likes annoying people. I started questioning myself, I stopped raising my hand so much; I beat the nerd out of little me. Years later, here I am at Quest; calling myself “not a science person.” I still love Doctor Who, I still love learning, I still raise my hand: but, it’s more subtle. I’m a subtle nerd.

So imagine this: the third day of Energy and Matter, Emma Davy announces to our class, as she kicked off her shoes to begin her daily bare-foot lectures, “Listen, I am a huuuuuuge nerd. I just love chemicals you guys. I am so excited to talk about chemicals. I am such a dork!” A week later, she shared that her “lab playlist,” is “lots of Beyonce. I love listening to Beyonce in the lab!” Emma lovingly talks about her husband, “also a huge chemistry nerd,” and how they talk about molecules and chemicals during dinner. She is such a proud nerd. And guess what? Everyone loves her. My class adores her.

In Emma, I see myself. I see younger Kate, being represented. I finally see myself, in this intelligent, hilarious, wonderful teacher. I finally see myself in someone who is passionate about science. In a woman who geeks out over science, but also wears dresses and is loved my everyone around her. I wonder if having a role model and teacher like Emma, as a young kid, would have changed my path. This is why representation is important. This is why we need to be inspiring young women and other minorities to be in STEM. In order to close the gap in STEM leaders from oppressed communities, we need to see ourselves in STEM.

This is precisely why, a week after “Women in STEM,” during a day when we presented on famous contributors to physics and chemistry, I, and most of the class, decided to specifically research women in this field. We decided to forgo the list of “famous chemists” for smaller websites that celebrated the achievements of women in all science fields. We, a class primarily filled with “non-sciencey” women, listened avidly and excitedly to our peers presenting on badass nerd-ladies and science wizzes. We cheered for their achievements, we clapped for their awards, and boo-ed for each time one of their male colleagues received credit for the astonishing work they had completed. I left the class feeling proud, proud of the resiliency of women, and the strength of women in fields where they rarely are showcased for their work. This is what we need. We need this is in mass media, we need this in TV shows. We need more images of female scientists who are not either sexualized and fetishized; or, annoying, bossy, and asexual. Young dorky kiddos who love learning need to see themselves represented.

So, even though at this point in my life I am pretty certain that I do not want to pursue a career in science, and can not wait to be in a class where I get to write creative essays again…

Thank You from the bottom of my heart Emma Davy, magical chemistry nerd, and strong woman, for showing me that there is a place in science for women like me. And that, being a nerd/dork/geek woman does not make you annoying, or any less incredible and amazing and desirable…in fact – it’s the opposite! Femme nerds ROCK!!!

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