Thursday, November 19, 2009


A post over at Dr. Isis' blog has got me thinking about how to encourage girls to consider careers in math and science. I don't think I have any original insight on that. It has also got me thinking about my own experiences in high school, and since this is a blog and blogs are good for self-indulgent reminiscing, I think I'll go ahead and indulge.

I have very clear memories of our homecoming assemblies in high school. We'd all gather in the auditorium, and former members of the football team, cheer squad, and pom line would come back and be introduced to our applause. The returning cheer/pom line women would perform a dance, too.

I have no recollection of how the returning football players were introduced. The returning cheer/pom line women were all introduced using the following formula: "This is X. She graduated in Y, and now she's married and has Z kids!" For some reason, probably related to the number of years after high school at which coming back and performing a dance sounded like a good idea to former cheerleaders and pom line members, Z usually equaled 3. So we would sit through a bunch of introductions like this: "This is Janet Smith, but in high scool she was Janet Brown. She graduated in 1985 and now she's married and has three kids! And she still fits in her old cheer uniform!"

I had a fantasy of returning and being introduced as "This is Cloud! She graduated in [let's not say], and now she's married and has three degrees!"

I, unfortunately only have TWO degrees. My graduate institution did not award MS degrees on the way to the PhD. I suppose I could go get an MBA or something so that I could live out my fantasy. But that would be silly. I wasn't in cheer or pom, so I would never be on that stage in the first place.

So here's my thought on encouraging our geeky kids, male and female: maybe our high schools should start inviting their academic high achievers back for homecoming, too.


  1. redzils9:56 AM

    That is a very cool idea, Cloud.

    I have three degrees, and I suppose I'd fit in my old ski racing uniform (think spandex from ankle to wrist to neck - I don't guarantee it would look great, but spandex stretches...). I wonder if I ought to borrow it back (they were only checked out to us) and go to Homecoming next year.

  2. That is hilarious!

    I remember back in highschool when they would come on the PA in the morning and announce results from track & field meets, or other sporting events. And how awesome it was when I joined the swim team and by the simple fact of being a good distance swimmer, started wining a lot of races because I was often the only person competing in my particular category. There just wasn't anything at all similar for science or math achievements. They didn't announce chess club results, or math contest winners. Just sports.

    A huge part of the reason I wound up doing math in undergrad was because I had a female math teacher for grades 6-8 who was absolutely amazing. She loved to teach, and she loved math, and she was confident that we could all do math if we worked hard enough.

    How did you wind up in science?

  3. Thanks, @redzils! I'd have to squeeze into my orchestra uniform, which was a blue princess dress. I kid you not- we got to vote, and the girly girls won. I don't have the dress anymore, but I'm sure it wouldn't fit. Even after I drop the baby weight.

    @Today Wendy- I was good at math and science, but was planning to study history. My high school chemistry teacher encouraged me to consider chemistry, and gave me some great advice as I head off to college: take any honors class you test into. (The college I went to started orientation week by having incoming freshmen take a bunch of exams to place them in the required math and science courses. My chemistry teacher had done graduate work at this school, and knew about this practice.)

    I tested into honors chemistry and fell in love with theory- I loved that quantum mechanics explained why, not just what, at least at the scale you work with in chemistry. So I ended up a chemistry major. I could never have gone into physics, because it bugged me that no one could explain why gravity works.

    Also, I had a hard time "catching up" in math. I hit a wall in multivariable calculus that I never really got over. I sometimes wonder if I would have ended up doing something different if I hadn't been behind in math by the time I started college. One of my favorite memories from college is the day in quantum mechanics that we sat down and the professor said "Assume H and G are two Hermitian operators..." and spent the next 50 minutes working through what was essentially a mathematical proof. And at the end he circled the equation he'd come up with and said "And there you have the Heisenberg uncertainty principle." I was just blown away.

    I have strayed far from my original interests. I don't do much math at all anymore, and find myself wishing I'd made more time for a statistics course in college. That would be more helpful in my current work than the quantum mechanics and multivariable calculus.

  4. I wish I'd done more stats too! Stats was sort of the unwanted step-child of all the different branches of math at my school.

    I wonder how many of us wind up where we do because someone, at some point, told us "hey, you're really good at that". It is always so much more fun doing something you're good at.

    Quantum mechanics still mostly doesn't make any sense to me. I was so excited about studying it in undergrad, and then the courses offered were all so terrible. I have to deal with it on a practical level since you actually can't explain how MRI works without quantum effects, but my understanding of it is really poor.

  5. mary d1:02 PM

    My husband I were discussing something similar. He went to an all-boys school and we get a quarterly alumni newsletter. They are constantly highlighting the old athletes (including at least one Major League Baseball player who is in seemingly every issue). But my husband has a PhD, another one is an MD, I'm sure there are more with similar accomplishments. Do they highlight these guys? NO.

    The cheer/pom thing is worse, I think, but maybe because I was a band geek. ;)

    Oh, and I went into chemical engineering because someone told me I'd be good at it. I don't do any engineering anymore but it did seem to be a good fit.

  6. I would love to go back to my high school, but one of the reasons why is that I switched from science to humanities and now have 3 degrees and a great career. My high school tried ot push everyone to do science which is great, but they're at the same time REALLY DOWN on the humanities, which had me waste a year of tuition and effort on an endeavor for which I have aptitude but no passion.

  7. @Mimi- I think high schools should invite successful alumni from all walks of life back for homecoming! It was just a science blog that got me thinking about the idea again.

    It is a shame that your high school tried to push everyone into science. That makes no sense- society needs people in other fields, too.

    I don't know that my high school tried to push students towards anything, really.


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