Representation matters. I thought it was important that students associate that title with someone who maybe doesn’t look like what they might think a scientist looks like.
One of the things I love about my work as a Museum Educator is that not only do I never have the same day twice, I’m constantly learning new things. I see a sense of wonder and discovery with learners on their first trip to the museums, as they walk through the galleries with wide eyes, lots of questions, and an occasional shriek of delight. Some have been here many times, but still find something new in the galleries to discover or see something in a new way. Museums are living entities, not static and not still, and they belong to all of us. We all have a place in public museums.
I thought carefully about how I wanted to introduce myself to these groups; in some teaching environments I only use my first name, and even still, some students default to calling me “miss” because that’s what they call their teachers, and my family name is always a tricky business. Or, as I tell them, “It’s weird to call a grownup you just met by their first name, and my last name is kind of a mouthful, so you can call me Dr. T.”
Representation matters. I thought it was important that students associate that title with someone who maybe doesn’t look like what they might think a scientist looks like. I joke with them—saying “I do have a PhD—it’s not in rocket science, but it’s still pretty awesome”—but that’s enough to get them thinking. My goal is to make science fun; to teach basic concepts and ideas, but in a way that’s engaging and welcoming. But I also want them to imagine themselves as scientists, too.
When I ask students to name a scientist they know, it’s usually Albert Einstein. If pressed, sometimes they say Marie Curie. But I want them to also say Mae Jemison and Valentina Tereshkova and Rosalind Franklin and so many more. (Related, let me recommend Rachel Ignotofsky’s stunning illustrations about Women in Science: https://www.rachelignotofskydesign.com/about ).
This year I learned about a project called If/Then (https://www.ifthenshecan.org) which is a remarkable initiative designed to “empower current STEM innovators and inspire the next generation” through a few key points. Primary among them is this idea of representation. If we see STEM as both important and all around us, and w
e underscore that understanding with better examples in media elevating, supporting, and highlighting women in STEM as role models, we’ll see more young women want to get involved in STEM. We all know the studies and statistics about when young girls lose interest in STEM and why; this project aims to upend that.
One of the particular delights about this project is the If/Then Ambassadors program, where 125 scientists were chosen across a wide range of disciplines in concert with the
American Association for the Advancement of Science. (https://www.aaas.org/page/ifthen-ambassadors). These women represent an incredible and dazzling array of work. One of the joys of my discovery was reading and learning about remarkable women like Dana Bolles (https://ifthencollection.org/da
science and fashion in unique and captivating ways; and Danielle Twum, immunologist and innovator working as a field operations specialist (https://ifthencollection.org/daniellet) with a particular skill for making STEM accessible to everyone.
As a museum, that’s a goal we share; in coming months you’ll see additional gallery materials highlighting women in STEM throughout our Science Museum as well as in our Museums a la Carte program, with a free virtual talk about Breaking Barriers: Gender Equity in STEM that will highlight the If/Then program and its remarkable work. I hope you’ll join us.
Anne Thalheimer, aka Dr. T, is a Science Educator at the Springfield Museums