This video called Science: It’s a Girl Thing! has been widely criticized for being sexist. What I find even more disturbing is that there is an actual need to dress science and technology up as something they are not. When did kids lose their curiosity?
This problem is not new; far from it, in fact. Teaching at a university, I get to see the students’ attitudes towards learning and the administration’s desperate attempts at retaining students and doing something, anything, about the appalling lack of women in computing (where I teach).
You hear lots of theories why girls and women are not attracted to computing or science: they don’t see the application, they want to do something meaningful. I don’t buy it.
We all carry around applications of modern science and engineering, and many teenagers are completely hooked on them. A smartphone has it all: lots of intricate electronics (Electrical engineering! Nanotechnology! Optics!), an amazingly powerful battery (Chemistry! Physics!), a beautiful and durable metal or plastic case and display (More chemistry! Material science! Manufacturing! Mechanical engineering! Other stuff!), and software (Computing! Interface design! Real-time processing! Compression! Encryption!).
When I was a kid, I used to take everything apart. Everything. Mechanical and digital watches, radios, electronic toys, VCRs, whatever I could get my hands on. A lot has been said about how this is harder today with all those sleek gadgets that no longer have visible screws. But I don’t buy it, a determined kid will find the screws and the right screwdriver and get the thing open one way or another. If anything, it’s actually much more exciting to take apart a modern gadget where you don’t just need to undo the four screws that hold everything together.
What is missing is not the ability to take things apart, but the drive to do it, the curiosity. Wanting to know what’s inside. Longing to see how it works. It’s such a powerful urge that it has brought us from the caves of the stone age into the future we live in today. It’s not just the geeks who want to know why, it’s a fundamental human thing. If it were limited to just a small group, we would not be where we are today.
But where did it go? How did we kill it? How do we get it back?
What makes attempts at dressing science and engineering up as “cool” or whatever so misguided is not (just) the sexism, it’s that it tackles the wrong problem. Of course, it’s easier to go out and make a fun, if stupid, video rather than fix systemic problems throughout society. But it’s also not going to change anything. Does anybody really believe that a video is going to make any kind of difference?
It also doesn’t help because it doesn’t make the work any less hard. It doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl, you will need to spend years just learning the basics, and decades mastering your field. Of course the application is important, but it can’t be done without the urge to know how it all works, where it all comes from. You have to tinker with and obsess over the tiny details in order to build anything meaningful.
There is a simple solution. One that every child knows, but one that gets lost somewhere along the way. It’s a single word, used as a question.