Rocket Girls was launched in 2016 to inspire the dreams and aspirations of girls and women who want to pursue careers in science and math. We do this by sharing the stories of female role models which many history and science books omit, providing ideas and projects in order to do science, and by writing the next generation’s stories of women in science — many of which have yet to be written.
How it all started
How it all started
By the time I began Cornell University as a premed in 1983, I had successfully completed AP Calculus, AP Chemistry, and AP Physics. I had planned on majoring in science, though I wasn’t sure which science. As Cornell would not accept AP credit for courses in your major (actually, I’m not sure my AP exams got me out of any courses), I had to take chemistry and physics again. But, I was placed in honors versions of each.
The first day of my physics course, I entered the oak-lined classroom, took a seat in the front, and waited for the professor, nervous as all heck. Other students were talking with each other, some of them seemed to know each other. I didn’t know anyone. And at the age of 18, I had yet to overcome my shyness. And to be honest, I wasn’t sure I belonged there. Yes, I had passed my AP Physics class and exam, but I was sure it was a fluke. Or, someone had graded my exam incorrectly. Because there were some topics that still challenged me, like the three-dimensional forces on a charge in an electrical or magnetic field.
So when the professor entered the class, I was already a bit nervous and unsure of myself.
The professor started going over the course syllabus and then went over the prerequisites for the class.
“You need to have completed calculus for this class. How many of you took calculus?” he asked.
I raised my hand. So it seemed did everyone around me.
“Who took AP Calculus?” he asked.
I raised my hand again. So it seemed did everyone else.
“Who got a 4 or 5 on the AP Calculus exam?”
I raised my hand for the third time. As did many others.
By the time he asked third question, the professor had inched his way toward my desk.
He fired the next series of questions at me, alone.
“Where did you take calculus?”
“Was that AP Calculus A, B, or C?”
“Do you know how to solve differential equations?”
“First order, second order, third order integrals?”
I hit each question out of the park with aplomb. And, though I seemed competent and capable, I was inside, just a frightened girl who had flown 3,000 miles away to go to school.
And, as he was directing these questions at me and not at anyone else, I was glancing at those to the right and left of me, and a little behind me, for corroboration and support.
It was only then that I realized that every other student in the classroom that afternoon was male.
I was the only girl in the room.
It certainly hadn’t been that way in high school. Our science classes were 50/50, and some of the smartest students — among whom I didn’t count myself — were girls.
Where were those girls now?
I felt as if I didn’t belong. I felt that I wasn’t smart enough to succeed in that class. And that I wouldn’t get the support I needed in order to do so.
I don’t recall the subsequent lesson at all.
What I do recall is that, at the end, I walked straight to my counselor’s office, and dropped down to regular — and not honors — first year physics.
And, to be honest, I didn’t do well in that class either.
As a high school chemistry (and even physics) teacher with many years' experience, I know from experience that there is zero gender difference or nationality difference or racial difference that determines who succeeds in science classes. I’ve learned that success is directly related to work ethic and mindset.
If you have the work ethic to do all the work necessary in a science class, you will succeed most of the time.
If you have the mindset that you’re good at math and science, you will succeed most of the time.
If you have both, you will succeed all the time.
Still, statistics tell us that women and minorities drop out of math and science careers at every step in the pipeline — between high school and college, between college and graduate school, between graduate school and professional life, and even once they are in the profession.
There are many reasons for this that I cannot solve here.
I had a chance 5-10 years ago to interview Nobel Prize-winning scientists. And I asked each of them the same question, “What got you interested in science?”
The scientists gave me many different answers, but there were one or two catalysts that each of them shared — curiosity and the love of reading, especially though not exclusively, the stories of scientific discovery.
Unfortunately, I was unable to interview any of the female Nobel prize recipients. They were less available and far fewer in number.
Still, I realized that, in all the stories of past scientific discoveries, the heroes were white European men. I know, because as a child, I also read these stories over and over again, and loved them.
Might I have made different decisions if I had more female science role models? Perhaps. I cannot know.
I do know, however, that Rocket Girls is the result of the path I took. And I’m thrilled that you are considering joining me on this mission.
Welcome to Rocket Girls!
Remember, you are made of star stuff.