Monday, March 20, 2006

Sally Ride on Math and Science

USA Today has a great interview today with Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. She makes a few points that are germane to the discussion on America's math and science "edge" and the role of women in creating that edge. First, we used to think that women wouldn't make good doctors or lawyers, but now those professional schools are 50-50. It's possible that stereotypes in math and science are just slightly more entrenched. Second, girls have perceptions of engineering that consist of a 65-year-old guy in a lab coat hunched over his experiments in a basement somewhere. She recommends linking promising female math and science types up with "the coolest female engineer in the company" to show that those perceptions are false. And finally, she calls for vouchers to help hold schools' feet to the fire in creating higher standards.

As the numbers at the start of the piece point out, India graduated 200,000 engineers in 2004 (I'm guessing they mean undergraduate degrees, though this isn't said). The U.S. graduated 70,000. Engineering fields will grow fast and create a lot of new jobs in the next few years. By my calculation, if the U.S. graduated as many female engineers as male engineers, the total could rise to about 115,000, a far more competitive number. I've written in previous posts that we should remember that not everyone with capabilities in math and science wants to be an engineer. I like to think I could have been a good one, but my main interests lay elsewhere. Still, changing perceptions of engineering, and some good outreach, could really shake up the situation. Hopefully Sally Ride will lead the way, just as she did into space.

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