Imagine, if you will, a young girl, stepping into her high school chemistry class for the very first time. She's one of those straight-A, over-achieving students, on track for class valedictorian. True, she's more of the reading and writing type, but she loved her biology class, even the required dissection of the fetal pig, which she had to perform pretty much single-handedly after her squeamish lab partner threw up (just from the sound of the breastbone cracking and spreading apart). In junior high, she thrilled to ancient fossils and archaeological digs; memorized the major constellations visible from her suburban backyard; and occasionally fantasized about being one of those science types who help solve crimes (she is also an avid mystery buff). So she's rather intrigued about what this chemistry stuff is all about, thinking it'll be more hands-on fun in the lab.
That young girl was me, more years ago than I'd care to admit. And unfortunately, that high school chemistry class was so bad, it turned me off all of science for the remainder of my formal education. Gone were the nifty hands-on lab experiments that typified my earlier science classes, replaced by dry, droning lectures and a lot of meaningless number-crunching. It was all presented devoid of any contextual framework: I dutifully did as I was told -- indeed, I earned the only "A" in the class -- but frankly, I took away no lasting knowledge, apart from a vague definition of a "mole." I've been highly suspicious of the standard metrics for measuring academic success ever since. (Really, isn't the whole point of education to learn, not simply to rack up good grades?)
More importantly, I loathed every minute of that class. The chemistry teacher -- rather than admitting that perhaps his teaching approach might need some adjustment, if so many otherwise decent students were doing poorly in his class -- simply told us that we clearly weren't cut out for the hard sciences, and that if we hated chemistry, we would really hate physics. It filled everyone with trepidation about senior year, if not outright dread. Physics phobia set in early for most of us as a result of one teacher too proud to acknowledge his own shortcomings.
Things didn't improve with the one introductory astronomy course I took my freshman year of college. It's astronomy! The stars! Galaxies! Supernova explosions and black holes! How is it possible to make that stuff boring? And yet somehow, the professor did. Again, the focus was on dry, uninspired lectures, made even worse by the fact that on the first day of class, he told us that he didn't give a damn about the course, or whether we learned anything. After all, we were only there to fulfill some stupid requirement, and why should he bother teaching those who would never become science majors?
One wishes such contemptuous attitudes were rare among science teachers and professors, but they're more common than one might think, especially in challenging fields like physics. The emphasis is often more on "weeding out" the chaff from incoming classes, rather than encouraging all students to at least learn some science. And we're paying the price with an ever-widening gap between scientists and the general public. The situation is even worse for young girls. Sure, there's a lot of ongoing debate and study about innate "gender differences," but it's the cultural prejudices that are most crippling. I certainly internalized the message at a very young age that girls just weren't as good at math and science. Even if teachers actively encourage young girls (which is not always the case), they are often ridiculed by their peers for their "unfeminine" interests if they admit they like science or math. (Classic line from the film Mean Girls: "You can't join the math club! It's social suicide!")
In short, it's tough being a budding Geek Grrl. So I was thrilled to learn that the Feminist Press is working with the National Science Foundation to produce a series of books to encourage junior high and high school girls to persevere in their nascent scientific pursuits. I had the pleasure of meeting the "team" of women working on the project: women of all ages and backgrounds, with one thing in common: all of us had some interest in science at an early age, that was summarily squelched. And now they're trying to prevent this from happening to up-and-coming generations.
That's why Cocktail Party Physics is taking a break from our usual gossipy scientific fare to publicize the Feminist Press' just-released call for proposals:
Girls and Science: Call for Proposals
The Feminist Press, in collaboration with The National Science Foundation, is exploring new ways to get girls and young women interested in science. While there are many library resources featuring biographies of women scientists that are suitable for school reports, these are rarely the books that girls seek out themselves to read for pleasure. What would a book, or series of books, about science that girls really want to read look like? That is the question we want to answer.
You’ll find several requests for specific proposals at our website. One calls for scientific detective stories based on the life, research, and discoveries of real women scientists. Another calls for stories featuring real young women—aspiring gymnasts, ice skaters, actors, dancers--using a knowledge of science to help them become really good at what they do. A third recognizes how popular Manga and graphic novels are with girls, and asks for imaginative new collaborations between Manga writers and artists to create adventures about girls who use real science to accomplish their goals. If any of these three book ideas interest you, please check out our website (www.feministpress.org) for more information about deadline and how to submit proposals.
But we do not want to limit our exploration. If you are a writer and have an idea for a book or series of books that is guaranteed to get girls excited about science, we want to hear from you. You may want to create a girl detective series featuring a set of friends—from geeks to sports nuts to mechanical geniuses—each with a knowledge of science that helps in solving crimes. You may want to create a story about a shy girl who goes on field trips with her favorite aunt, a forensic anthropologist, and helps to solve problems as she learns to think like a Dr. Bones. You may want to tell the story of a young science fiction writer who needs to study different fields of science in order to create her adventures. Whatever your vision, if you can write like a dream and can create works that are guaranteed to instill a curiosity about science in girls and young women, send us your proposals. We want to hear from you.
All proposals will be reviewed. Several proposals will be offered standard contracts.
Publisher: The Feminist Press at City University of New York as part of a National Science Foundation grant. (see feministpress.org)
Deadline: October 31, 2006
Format: Proposals should describe the project, the plot, characters, and length. No more than ten pages please.
How to submit: Electronic submission (word doc) to [email protected] with the subject line "Girls and Science." Please include in the body of your email your address, phone number, email address and a short bio. Please also attach a brief sample of your writing (about five pages), and a resume that includes information about publications.
I encourage our readers to pass this information on to any writers, or scientists aspiring to be writers, of their acquaintance. Let's not abandon all the young Geeklings coming up the pipeline, just when they need encouragement the most.