Wednesday, November 26, 2014

On Planck’s Law, Blackbodies and the Physics of Diversity

Dr. Jedidah Isler
@JedidahIslerPhD
Reproduced from the June 2014 Issue of STATUS: A Report on Women in Astronomy.  The article below is written by Dr. Jedidah Isler, Syracuse University, Department of Physics.

Diversity and inclusion are important, yet vexing, issues that we struggle with in every arena. Academia and, more specifically, astronomy are not exempt. Many interpretations of the experiences of diverse people have been offered, but unfortunately, many have fallen short in pivotal ways.

As an astrophysicist, I see the beauty and logic that physics allows us to impose on the cosmos, but also on a broader array of issues. Sociophysics, for example, “uses concepts from the physics of disordered matter to describe some aspects of social and political behavior.” [1] I would like, then, to describe a few diversity issues in terms of a physical concept that astronomers are familiar with, namely Planck’s Law. This analogy is not perfect, but it affords us a mechanism to address some of the complexity of diversity conversations and direct us towards more globally beneficial diversity practices.

Even before I begin, I acknowledge that I cannot address all aspects of diversity, which includes the full spectrum of ethnicity, class and sexual expression. I focus on the diverse experiences of women (broadly defined), but these principles can generally be extended to other dimensions of diversity. Still, I encourage expansion of our colloquial definitions of diversity, even as social psychologists grapple with characterizing our behavior surrounding it. My goal is not to establish who suffers most, but to suggest that different groups suffer differently and in profoundly complicated ways. Thus, this article is for all of us. It is an attempt to provide a familiar framework for this complex issue.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Spatial Skills, STEM, and the Gender Gap*

Most engineering faculty have highly developed 3-D spatial skills and may not understand that others can struggle with a topic they find so easy. Furthermore, they may not believe that spatial skills can be improved through practice, falsely believing that this particular skill is one that a person is either “born with” or not. They don’t understand that they probably developed these skills over many years.                             
 —Sheryl Sorby
 
One of the most persistent gender gaps in cognitive skills is found in the area of spatial skills, specifically on measures of mental rotation, where researchers consistently find that men outscore women by a medium to large margin (Linn & Petersen, 1985; Voyer et al., 1995). While no definitive evidence proves that strong spatial abilities are required for achievement in STEM careers (Ceci et al., 2009), many people, including science and engineering professors, view them as important for success in fields like engineering and classes like organic chemistry. The National Academy of Sciences states that “spatial thinking is at the heart of many great discoveries in science, that it underpins many of the activities of the modern workforce, and that it pervades the everyday activities of modern life” (National Research Council, Committee on Support for Thinking Spatially, 2006, p.1).
 
Sheryl Sorby, a professor of mechanical engineering and engineering mechanics at Michigan Technological University, has studied the role of spatial-skills training in the retention of female students in engineering since the early 1990s. She finds that individuals can dramatically improve their 3-D spatial-visualization skills within a short time with training, and female engineering students with poorly developed spatial skills who receive spatial visualization training are more likely to stay in engineering than are their peers who do not receive training.
 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

It's Not About That Damn Shirt

The following was submitted to the Women in Astronomy Blog by a female astronomer who wishes to use the pseudonym Kerri Benjamin.

The next sentence is the most important thing in this whole post:  

I am posting this under a pseudonym because I am afraid to post it on my own blog or Twitter.

I am afraid. 

The snafu known as ShirtGate or ShirtStorm is complicated, nuanced, and exhausting. 

The below is not comprehensive. I'm going to talk about the things I consider to be the most important or most misunderstood. I'm doing bullet points because I am too damn tired to make this narratively pretty. And I don't mean physically exhausted. I am tired of THIS. THIS is sexism, in the world, in science, and on the Internet. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Why I think diversity is good, but the wrong target

There have been many posts on this blog and elsewhere calling for increased diversity in astronomy. I've written about it. My student has written about it. Diversity has many benefits, and we're missing out on those benefits by not having a more diverse field of science. However, I'm becoming less and less enamored with diversity as a target or goal in and of itself.
This stock photo shows more diversity than exists in astronomy today, but illustrates
what counts as diversity in most campus discussions. The out-of-focus Black person
is particularly apropos to this discussion.
Short Version

If we only focus on diversity, we'll be like a CEO saying that her goal is to "make money." Ohhh-kay. But how, specifically? By what strategy and mechanisms will the CEO make money? 

It'd be like a coach of a sports team saying, "Our goal is to score more points than our opponents!" By what strategy? What offensive and defensive approach will you use? "Nope, we're just focused on scoring points!"

Diversity is something we should strive for. But how will we get there? I contend that we'll only get to diversity by attacking the power structures that hold us back and stand in the way of diversity. For gender diversity, the roadblock is sexism. For racial diversity, the roadblock is racism

So rather than focusing on diversity as a target, we should instead aim at equal opportunity. Sexism and racism aim to deny equal opportunities to those outside of the white-male power structure. White women have made gains by directly attacking sexist power structures. But this process has left women of color behind. Gains for women (and men) of color will only be made once organizations such as the CSWA start taking an intersectional approach that recognizes that women of color face not only sexism, but racism as well in their daily lives (note how this direct attack on power structures contrasts with "multiculturalism"). 

Long Version

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How to Apologize

The astronomy community has been reeling this past week from the aftermath of the Rosetta #ShirtStorm incident. The scientist who made this mistake has apologized -- which is very difficult to do -- and I applaud him for doing that.  Even people with the best intentions mess up and make mistakes; it is a great opportunity to reflect and learn. Here is a video by Franchesca Ramsey on how to apologize when you've been called out.  She uses an example from her own life where she was transphobic, got called out, and how she responded.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Full STEAM Ahead! The Adler Planetarium’s 2nd Annual Girls do Hack Day


Choo choo! I am full STEAM ahead on the STEM + art/design train. This past Saturday, at our 2nd annual Girls do Hack Day at the Adler Planetarium, I saw first-hand how well it works to use the creativity and fun of art/design to hook girls into STEM.