Teaching for STEM equality: 80s time machine edition

02 Mar

Over the weekend, a friend showed me an old photo. It has a group of young kids gathered around a Commodore PET computer. At the keyboard, face unseen, is the only girl in the picture: me. It’s hard to mistake my early ’80s feathered pageboy haircut. I’d share the photo but I don’t have permission of the others; I can’t remember half of their names. So, you get a photo of what we were focused on:

"Commodore 2001 Series-IMG 0448b" by Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 fr via Wikimedia Commons -

“Commodore 2001 Series-IMG 0448b” by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 fr

From 1980-1984, I was in the first “gifted and talented” math and science program in my school district. I had the same math teacher all four years, apparently the only one up to the challenge of teaching know-it-all middle school brats. He taught us logic, basic algebra and geometry, and then he brought in a computer and taught us how to use that. If my memory is accurate, we used the PET until he got an Apple IIe.

There is a lot of talk now about how to encourage girls to pursue degrees and careers in STEM. My G&T math classes had 2-3 girls in a room of 12-15 students. I don’t remember my teacher ever treating the girls differently than the boys, but importantly, he didn’t make us all act the same. He encouraged us to be the goofy tween girls we were. I remember that he thought the Smurfs were stupid, so my friend and I used to tease him by singing the theme and calling him Gargamel, though our Gargamel had photogrey aviators and a droopy ’70s mustache. I loved going to math class, even if my favorite subjects were… well, almost everything else.

Looking at that photo yesterday, I noticed something that didn’t register in my memory. The cork board behind the computer table has two sections. One is covered with print-outs of computer art but the other has pictures and biographies of female mathematicians and scientists through history. This was long before diversity was wedged into every part of the standard curriculum; Gargamel must have put conscious thought and planning into it. It makes me smile to look at that board and then the foreground, where an 11 year old girl writes lines of Commodore BASIC as a handful of boys eagerly lean in. And, that’s another point: the boys aren’t looking at me or pushing to get their chance. We’re all focused on the screen.

When I was growing up, it was normal for boys and girls to be friends and play together; something that my mother’s generation found bewildering. At my university a couple of years ago, I got to see young men and women in the generation below mine. At least in a public school in the northern US, I saw friendships and working relationships easily spanning sex, gender identification, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, and ability. It was a huge step forward in 40 years.

Yet, I can’t open Twitter without seeing new stories about abuse of women in gaming, inequality in hiring and pay in tech companies, or someone pushing to give women a leg up so they can have equity. How is this happening?

I never felt any barriers to being a woman in tech. Guidance counselors pushed me toward engineering (I chose a different path).  Later, in the 15 years I worked in the Internet industry, sure, some people I worked with were sexist. I found them easier to deal with than others who were willfully ignorant, abusive, or scheming.

I wonder if I thrived partially because of the great start I was given by Gargamel. He taught me that it was ok to be myself, female bits and all, and that had nothing to do with math or science or coding. I could be a dork who played Dungeons & Dragons with the boys and shuffled around in Bastad clogs and Jordache jeans with the girls. So what? I belonged there because I could do the work and it interested me. Nothing else mattered.

Not only did he give that message to the small group of girls in his classes, though, it also was the norm for the boys. Looking at the photo, I see boys who were friends and crushes over the years, some who are still connected to me on Facebook. There were boys in high school who gave me a hard time for being active in male-dominated areas, but I don’t see any of them in this photo. Perhaps it was just as important for them to have an environment where girls and boys could be different but still engaged with tech and math. The well-intentioned strategy of offering girls special tech camps might teach them skills in a “safe” environment, but it reinforces a message of separate but equal rather than integration and tolerance.

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Posted by on March 2, 2015 in Learning


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