After yesterday’s post about role models, I realized I should try to highlight some of my favorite female role models in STEM fields. First up is Rear Admiral “Amazing” Grace Hopper. She was not only a pioneer in the field of computer science, she was also one of the very first female Admirals, and had an impressive breadth of academic and professional skills.
She’s not nearly as widely known as she should be, because she achieved some truly great things. For what would have been her 107th birthday last year, she was honored with a Google Doodle for the day, which helped bring attention to some of her accomplishments. She earned a PhD in mathematics from Yale in the 1930s, when such a thing was extremely rare. During WWII she felt called to serve and left her teaching job to join the Navy Reserves.
While in the Navy she worked on the Navy’s first computer, the Mark I, at Harvard, as well as several of its follow-on variants. She is credited for coining the term “bug in the system” when an actual moth in one of the massive early computers was fouling things up – so she was the first de-bugger. She also created the COBOL programming language and invented the compiler. Her creative mind was unparalleled, and she was always pushing for change – my favorite quote of hers is that “The most damaging phrase in the language is `We’ve always done it this way.'”
She served so long that at one point she was the oldest woman serving in the Navy. There is a Navy destroyer named after her, the USS Hopper, which is currently deployed. She was gifted and driven and she had a passion for developing the next generation, saying, “Our young people are the future. We must provide for them. We must give them the positive leadership they’re looking for…You manage things; you lead people.”
If you’d like to know more about this pioneer in computer science, I recommend her page on the Navy history website, which has her official biography and some good anecdotes about her life and worth.
Any parent of a toddler can relate, I’m sure, with that feeling you get the eight millionth time a certain little person asks “why.” The temptation to respond with a flip answer, or “go ask someone else,” or “just because” is always there, and so hard to resist when you’re just trying to get something else done. But no matter how tired, cranky, or busy we are, it’s crucial to keep that sense of curiosity alive in children. Frustrating as it can be to answer the same question over and over, or the fiftieth new question of the day about the details of aardvark dentistry, that spark only stays lit for so long if it’s not encouraged.
What are some ways we can do that? I can think of a few, but welcome your additions to the list. Especially since most of the time I really have no idea what I’m doing with this parenting stuff. So here’s my two cents. And of course now that the list is out here in public, I’ll have to work even harder at practicing what I preach here!
- Take a deep breath before answering. This helps put a moment in there as a spacer before we might give a flippant or snappish answer. Or to see if we even know the answer.
- If you don’t know the answer, go look it up together. This is the kind of good thing Google can be used for, after all. And it will prevent you from saying you don’t know or making something up, while being a nice bonding and teaching moment. We want to establish sound research and reasoning principles here, after all.
- Answer with a question. Hey, it worked for Socrates! Plus you might get a fascinating response when you reply with, “Well, why do you think elephants are so big?” Kids do say the darndest things sometimes.
- Put it off gently and temporarily. If you just can’t handle one more question, suggest writing it down and finding the answer later, perhaps after dinner. And after mommy has a nice glass of wine.
So, what is my list of strategies missing? How can we encourage the future scientists, engineers, and problem-solvers of our world to keep asking questions and seeking answers?