Teaching: June 2011 Archives

Cupcakes, Creativity and Women in STEM

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An issue that I and other continue to ponder is why it remains difficult to attract women to STEM fields (math, engineering, science). Despite Larry Summer's unfortunate remarks, I do think that there are more women capable of participating in STEM fields than actually remain long enough to do so.

An excellent NMC keynote from Ahna Skop reminded me that there is somewhat of a culture gap between what many women might expect from a scientific career and what is traditionally expected.

The theme of Ahna Skop's talk was how she bucked the notion that she was "too creative for science". Although she is a respected biochemist, she points put that she and many other scientists actually draw inspiration from the beauty of their field. Although she is proficient in number crunching, she also includes media and visualization in her lab. In other words, part of her motivation is to make discoveries and present beautiful images of them.

This struck a chord in me because much of my interest in the sciences is based on "pretty pictures". I've always been mesmerized by images of planets, nebulae, mineral and abstract visualizations of various scientific processes. I realize that STEM isn't always about pretty pictures, but I am intrigued at how much math I do use in my crafts, and how crafts can be used to represent mathematical concepts.

Topology may seem very esoteric to a lot of people, but knitting is full of topological puzzles. Similarly quilting is full of area measurements for cutting and placing fabric blocks, and yes embroidery also requires counting, symmetry, enough topology to get those threads where you want them. As I said, it's amazing what mathematical related skills people will use if the result is a pretty picture.

It's almost a cliche that quilts are used to teach geometry, but there is a basic truth to there. I bet the women creating geometric designs in their crafts have an inner mathemetician. And the women making soaps and jellies have an inner chemist. If only the actual formulas didn't scare the bejeezus out of these ladies.

I think the other reason I liked this keynote so much was that Ahna Skop is not afraid to let all of her activities interact. How many women are brave enough to submit cupcake images to a scientific journal? And who would think to start a worm art show? Or create letters out of cultured bacteria? She did, and it's a refreshing change of page.