On Campus with Women: "Rethinking Scientific Pedagogies"

Monday, November 3, 2008 (Around 5 years ago)

On Campus with Women Vol. 37, No. 2 Rethinking Scientific Pedagogies

Twenty-five years ago, Sally Ride, a graduate of Stanford University with degrees in both physics and English, led American women to new heights when she ascended into space on the shuttle Challenger. The echoes of NASA’s shattering glass ceiling have reverberated ever since. In the same year, Barbara McClintock (with less fanfare but no small import) received the Nobel Prize for her groundbreaking work on maize chromosomes—research that has similarly reverberated in fields from medicine to botany. Yet in 2008, these women’s legacies, although well-heralded, remain only partially fulfilled. As Judy Touchton reports in her forthcoming monograph, A Measure of Equity: Women’s Progress in Higher Education, the latest data indicate that women have far to travel in fields such as physics, where women earned less than one-third of the PhDs awarded in 2006. Moreover, despite the honor bestowed on McClintock, women have received only twelve Nobel Prizes in scientific fields since the award’s inception in 1901. Thus while Ride and McClintock symbolize undeniable change within scientific fields, one still hears the question Virginia Valian raised in her 1998 book echoing in labs and classrooms throughout America: “Why so slow?”

Nearly a decade into the twenty-first century, the answer to Valian’s question remains elusive. Nevertheless, the fields in which women are succeeding suggest some possible clues. Women’s participation in biology and psychology is far above parity, and conventional wisdom might suggest that these fields, along with “feminine” (or feminized) professions like nursing, have simply been considered more suitable choices for women. Yet the possibility remains that these “helping professions” merely offer clearer opportunities for women—and men—to enact social change, and are thus more attractive to students. If that is the case, the question arises: what if all professions were seen as “helping professions,” with classroom pedagogies leading students to see the practical applications embedded in scientific inquiry? What if science education routinely raised questions embedded at the core of liberal education?

The authors of this issue of On Campus with Women are applying these questions to their research and teaching with promising results. While Sue Rosser explores new technologies to engage underrepresented students, including women, in the civic side of engineering, the faculty of the Kate Gleason College of Engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology finds that creating a civic culture through mentoring and outreach activities yields greater engagement and retention for young women. Lorelle Espinosa reinforces the need for inclusive pedagogies, including feminist pedagogies, that improve climates for women of color, and Elise Niedermeier explains how similar classroom approaches broadened her horizons as a non-science major. Beyond the undergraduate degree, Patricia Lowrie examines the power of inclusive leadership in the sciences, while Judy Touchton asks how women are doing once they enter the science workforce. In aggregate, this issue’s authors illustrate not only the continued need for improved science climates, but the power of new science pedagogies to effect these ends.

Just as Sally Ride’s journey from physics student to astronaut symbolizes what is possible for women despite the challenges that remain, her academic background in science and humanities gestures toward the promise of a balanced educational foundation. Scientific inquiry that incorporates aspects of feminist pedagogy and liberal education will benefit more than the students it engages—it will enhance the world they will help to shape, whether through Nobel-prize-winning inquiry or through applied scientific understanding on a more personal scale.

click here to read the full issue.

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