Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Oh, for the love of little green apples ....

(under the influence of a gravitational field that is proportional to the mass of the apple ma, the mass of the Earth me, and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their respective centers of mass.)

We need an army of cluebatters to hunt down whoever thought up this little gem. Quotas for Math and Science. That is one of the most logically bankrupt ideas I have ever heard of. It ranks with trying to legislate the value of pi to equal 3.0 because "it's easier." It may be easier, but it is also completely WRONG.

They are from the Department of Education, and they are here to help. Quick, bolt the lab doors and hide the computers! They have deduced, much in the manner of Inspector Clouseau, that women in math and science courses are subtly made to "feel unwelcome" and that is why there aren't very many of them. And it sounds like they are going to keep looking and poking and asking questions until someone confesses to subtlety.

Now, I don't have government credentials (I'm not even a journalist!) but I do have a science degree. A PhD in Physics, to be precise, which means I spent approximately TEN YEARS working in math and science, and I was female all the time. Sometimes I even taught those courses. You know what "feels" good? Standing at a blackboard and showing a bunch of my colleagues, using math and rigorous logic, that I'm right and they are wrong. Does wonders for your self-esteem. No quotas needed. All quotas get you are different statistics and increased resentment -- they don't solve the underlying problem.

I think there is a problem, but searching for bad vibes in the grad student lounge sounds remarkably like searching for your car keys where the light is better instead of where you actually lost them. In science, you are supposed to collect your facts before you come up with a theory. Therefore, I would like to hear the official "Feelings" explanation for why, if that's the only thing holding women back from sweeping the Nobel Prizes, I saw at least twice as many women in chemistry than physics at my university. Was the Unwelcome-O-Meter set to a different level in that department? (I've been to their seminars and the coffee and cookies are just as bad as ours, so it can't be that.)

The disparity in numbers made me curious, and I asked some of the women chemistry students -- who were often doing research on concepts at least as complicated as I was -- why they picked chemistry instead of physics. They all said "the math requirements." Note that these women were just as intelligent, driven, and capable as I was. And they weren't saying "math is hard" like some plastic toys and deans have been known to do. It was the prerequisites. The background. I, on the other hand, was taking calculus in high school. The way our public education system is structured it is very easy to opt out of higher math classes -- and by the time you realize you need to live and breathe differential equations to succeed in your chosen field, it can be too late to catch up. There's no point in shoving someone into a calculus class if they don't understand algebra yet, and it is manifestly unfair to deny boys math and science education just to make the numbers look good. We need to start making math much more prevalent earlier in the K-12 curriculum, and encourage girls there to take more math courses.

Oh look. Something the Department of Education could do that would actually be useful. Think they'll figure it out?


Blogger Barb said...

Nah - they can't add anything up, why would the the dept. of edumication figure it out?

'Fixing' the results, rather than repairing the root cause ... the favorite stupid bureaucratic response.

10:10 PM, April 18, 2006  

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