November 05, 2012

Embracing diversity and fostering access to science for all

Posted: November 05, 2012
Tirupalavanam Ganesh was inspired to pursue science by reading about Marie Curie's life.

Editor's Note: This op-ed by Tirupalavanam Ganesh is part of Title IX week at ASU – a celebration and examination of the 40th anniversary of the landmark piece of legislation that paved the way for equal opportunities in education and sports for women and girls.

As a 12 year old, I read a slim Oxford University Press edition of "Madame Curie," authored by Eve Curie. Reading Marie Curie’s biography again now reminded me of what inspired me to explore science when I was in grade school.  Curie moved from Poland to Paris where she eventually discovered radium through her dedication and long hours in her laboratory leading to two Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry. Her life and eventual death due to physical illness, caused by her exposure to radioactivity, was inspirational.

Curie’s life was remarkable not only for her successes, but also for the struggles she faced – poverty, single motherhood after her famous husband Pierre Curie died in a road accident, her refusal of a pension from the French government, and eventual appointment to the physics chair at the Sorbonne that was created for her husband in the face of resistance that a woman was to be given such a position in French higher education – reminded me that scientists are human after all.

Since 1906 social attitudes about women in science have changed considerably in the western hemisphere, if not all over the world. I subsequently read "Giants of Science and 100 Great Scientists" (circa 1960s) only to be struck by how few women were featured in these compilations. Conversations with my mother, a teacher, and grandmother, a homemaker, helped me better understand the challenges women faced in pursuing their academic interests.

Why do we have so few women in our nation’s “hard” sciences – physics and chemistry and engineering degree programs?

Reflecting on this question in 2012, at the 40th anniversary of Title IX, helps me appreciate the function social structures, families, role models and mentors play to ensure that females have opportunities to explore and pursue education and career pathways in science. Women scientists, mathematicians and engineers are needed to enhance our research and development enterprises. Their creativity and perspectives will only enrich the design and development of technological innovations that improve the quality of our lives in this global economy.

We need persistent efforts to ensure that women have access to successful educational and career pathways in science. For instance, through ASU’s Girls in Engineering program where 60 sixth-grade students engaged in a year-round effort to understand the role engineering plays in our lives through hands-on design challenges, I learned that long-term and deep learning opportunities are needed for all learners.

Creating opportunities for all students – female and male – to explore science and its relevance to our daily lives is essential to ensure a well-informed, literate citizenry.

Arizona State University is making strides in facilitating such development through its design aspiration of being a “socially embedded” institution. ASU’s efforts are not to simply offer degree programs, but are to play a significant role in facilitating learning at all levels through opportunities for all of our citizens. Creating access to high quality learning is vital.

ASU’s recent collaboration with the Arizona Science Center extends learning opportunities from the formal to the informal realm. Through experiences for children and their families, year-round outreach programs for K-12 students from our science and engineering colleges, and community embedded teacher preparation programs in neighborhood “hub schools,” ASU is now more socially embedded than ever before. These programs help foster learners’ inherent curiosity and facilitate long-term interest in understanding how science, engineering and technological innovation impact our daily lives.

Motivating our next generation of scientists by embracing diversity is what ASU is all about.

Tirupalavanam Ganesh is principal investigator of the National Science Foundation-sponsored study Learning through Engineering Design & Practice. He is presently in India working to develop a K-12 teaching and learning innovation organization in support of public education. He can be reached at tganesh@asu.edu.