Tag Archives: math

STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: COL Eileen Collins, NASA’s First Female Space Shuttle Commander

COL Eileen Collins is a retired Air Force Test Pilot and was the first woman to pilot the space shuttle, as well as the first woman to command a space shuttle.  When she first entered the Air Force, women were not allowed to fly combat aircraft, a ban that stood until 1993.  But that did not stop Eileen Collins from flying every aircraft she was allowed to and blazing a trail for female pilots in the Air Force and at NASA.

She has logged over 6751 flight hours.  She is highly educated, holding a B.A. in mathematics & economics, an M.S. in operations research, and an M.A. in space systems management, as well as honorary degrees.  She has been a pilot, a mathematics instructor, and flight instructor, and went through the prestigious Air Force Test Pilot School.  Married to a fellow pilot, she is also a mother of two.  Her awards would take several paragraphs to list.

COL Collins was selected for astronaut training in 1990 and in her sixteen years at NASA she worked a variety of jobs and flew four STS missions, for a total of 872 hours in space.  She made two trips to the Mir space station, twice executing one of the most difficult space piloting tasks there is: docking with a space station.  She also had one of the toughest missions imaginable on her final flight, STS-114, when she commanded the first mission back to space following the Columbia tragedy.

I like her perspective on genders on the job, which reflects my own similar experience in the military:

“Within the job itself, the male-female commander, the male-female astronaut, it’s really the same,” Collins said. “What really matters is how the person does their job.”

And I especially love her life advice for young people aspiring to a similar career:

“My advice to young people is this. Focus on three major areas: academics, activities, and your physical health. I encourage you, especially when you get into high school and you can choose some of the courses you take, to take the tough courses. Don’t just avoid a course because you think you might not get an “A.” Take the tough courses like math, science, and engineering. Learn a variety of things while you have the opportunity.”

COL Collins is an inspiring female role model in not just STEM fields, but also for kids who want to be pilots, astronauts, serve in the military, or really to excel in any chosen field.  











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Music Builds Math and Language Skills

I’m really, really rusty, but I played classical piano for many years growing up.  I even did a few competitions, but learned the hard way that stage fright and having to have all your stuff memorized wasn’t a very successful combination for me. Now that I’m starting to play a little with my daughter – and by ‘play’, I mean ‘try to show her some stuff while she climbs on me and bangs on the keys’ – I’m remembering some of the things I loved about learning to play when I was a kid.

My first piano teacher did not have a minimum age at which she would take students, she had a minimum skill level.  She would accept students as soon as they could read.  Her philosophy was that if you can read words, you can read music.  And so I started taking lessons, along with all my older siblings, around age four or five.   We worked through the standard Bastien books, but she also had some wonderful games to help young kids learn music.  I remember a musical version of monopoly, lining up laminated cards to form various scales, and sticking felt notes on the right spot on each clef.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning a new language.  I was also developing math skills, critical thinking skills and discovering my own flavor of creativity.  Music requires so many parts of the brain to work together.  Counting, rhythm, reading notes, planning ahead, coordinating hands and feet, volume levels, and even reading instructions in Italian.   Remembering what key you are in, and making the mental shift when that changes, requires some serious thought and attention to detail.  Add to all that the emotions and nuances of musicality and creativity, and making music becomes one of the most complex things you can do.  And that’s just classical music – improv types such as jazz add a whole new layer and skill set to the mix.

Playing music is a wonderfully educational thing, and it builds skills and pathways in the brain that can be directly applied to STEM fields.  Scientists, engineers, programmers, architects – all these types of fields require both academic smarts and creativity.  The arts are frequently looked down on by those who want to focus on hard sciences and disciplines, but I would argue that we really need both to succeed.  Standard courses won’t normally teach you to think outside the box, but playing around with a guitar or a piano can let you practice that skill.

I know my years of music training gave me a valuable set of life skills, and even helped me beat some of my terrible stage fright by high school.  I also still turn to the piano as an outlet when I’ve had a particularly bad day.  It’s hard to still be angry by the end of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, and Chopin’s Berceuse is the most soothing song I know for when I’m sad.  So for parents of geeks who want to encourage their kids to take an interest in the sciences, I ask you not to forget the arts.  I never would have made it through two engineering degrees without both the creative outlet and the foundation musical training laid in my brain.

Also, the first thing I am buying myself if I’m ever filthy rich is a lovely old Steinway piano.  Yes, even before I buy my ticket on Virgin Galactic.

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Cooking with science!

Cooking can be a fantastic teaching tool for kids in many ways.  Cooking is science, math, and art all rolled into one.  It’s also a good way to make kids more self-sufficient, get them to try new foods, and teach a useful life skill.  Spending time together in the kitchen is a great bonding experience as well.

Starting off small, toddlers can help stir, measure out ingredients, prep ingredients, and come along to shop for the necessities.  It helps develop motor skills, and most kids love getting to be a “little chef.”  Especially if they get their own cool apron.

As kids get older, they can learn to read the recipes, practice fractions to measure out 2/3 of a cup, learn weights and measures by figuring out that whole confusing pints, quarts, gallons mess, and practice basic math skills by having to double or halve a recipe.

Chemistry comes into the mix when you learn the hard way what happens when baking soda is left out of the chocolate chip cookies, or when you use too much or too little of different thickeners such as corn starch, arrowroot, flour, and agar agar.

Older kids can learn good research and planning skills by finding and choosing the recipes, making the shopping list, and figuring out when they will need to start cooking to have dinner on the table at the usual time.

If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you can check out some molecular gastronomy kits and add even more science to your cooking.

If you’re not into cooking or just way too busy to cook, a lot of these skills can be learned even from making a dinner consisting of microwaved burritos (read directions, figure out timing) and a bag of pre-made salad.  Or you could encourage math skills development by figuring out the exact change needed to buy lunch together.  You could also watch some Good Eats together, which if you haven’t seen it is sort of Bill Nye the Science Guy-meets-cooking-show.

Here are some of the favorites for cooking with my preschooler to date.

Age 2:

  • Stir scrambled eggs while they are cooking (with close supervision)
  • Stir bowls of ingredients for baking
  • Mash the bananas for bread or muffins
  • Wash produce
  • Use the salad spinner
  • Hold the grocery list

Age 3:

  • Fill a measuring cup of dry ingredients and pour it into the bowl (having them use a spoon to fill the measuring cup helps)
  • De-stemming mushrooms
  • Slice bananas, avocados, and other soft foods with butter knife
  • Cracking/opening eggs
  • Going through cookbooks/searching for internet recipes together to help choose what to make
  • Pour the ingredients into the bowl/pot/pan (with close supervision)
  • Help unload the dishwasher – she puts away all the silverware, which builds sorting skills and keeps my plates and glasses intact
  • Counting and sorting skills – put three carrot sticks on each plate, for example.
  • Clear the table and put dirty dishes in the sink
  • Pour batter for pancakes, waffles, muffins, etc.

I’ll periodically come back and update this list as she gets a little older and we get more adventurous in the kitchen.  Parents with older kids, please chime in with what your kids love to make and help out with in the kitchen.

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