Reflections On The Science Fair

Oscar Gordon

A Navy Turbine Tech who learned to spin wrenches on old cars, Oscar has since been trained as an Engineer & Software Developer & now writes tools for other engineers. When not in his shop or at work, he can be found spending time with his family, gardening, hiking, kayaking, gaming, or whatever strikes his fancy & fits in the budget.

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40 Responses

  1. Damon says:

    ” Women are just as good at science as men are. They may shine in different disciplines, but in the aggregate, they get the job done”

    I’m just not sure that women, in general, are as interested in science as men are.

    Our engineers are majority male. There’s probably 25-40% women-I’ve not looked at the stats. All of them are VERY good at what they do, but the real geniuses are two or three men who’ve been around for 40 years.Report

    • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Damon says:

      This is just a hypothesis, but I suspect than the people who’ve been around longest are much more likely to be the best talented. And if they came into their careers at a time when it was much harder for women to enter the field, then those people would be most likely to be male.Report

      • Damon in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        I agree. But these guys also exhibit levels of intelligence much higher than the average engineer, male or female, we have working here, so it appears that they are pretty damn sharp regardless of when they were hired.Report

        • Joe Sal in reply to Damon says:

          I think it is subjective. If a woman is in pursuit of a particular objective within science/engineering she will excel just as far and fast as a male counterpart. Self motivation can push individuals far beyond set norms in the field and can drag technology into more knowledgeable areas.Report

          • Kim in reply to Joe Sal says:

            Ya know what “Self motivation” is synonymous with?
            Sex Drive (specifically male) — brains are funny, funny things, and that’s not nearly the extent of how fucked up we are.Report

            • Burt Likko in reply to Kim says:

              Or in Freudian terms, the id.

              Call it id or libido or aggression or ambition, I’ve not noticed that women lack it.Report

              • Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

                Throughout his life, poor Sigmund could never get people to pronounce his name right. (They kept pronouncing it as “fraud”).

                You may be dealing with a bit of a selection bias, in terms of who you encounter.

                And humans are monumentally fucked up anyway (brain-damaged is a good word for it).Report

              • Burt Likko in reply to Kim says:

                I’ll cop to the selection bias. I encounter plenty of lawyers and judges, but also lots of brokers, accountants, academics, physicians, and most appropos to the OP, engineers, pilots, and scientists. Sex and gender matter way less than intelligence, effort, and experience; these are all occupations that demand substantial education and qualify as “professions” as much as they are also “jobs.”

                It’s fair to say, though, that at the very top levels of these professions, it’s still mostly white doodz. It’s still unusual, bordering on rare, rare to see shareholders or partners in large law firms who control large books of business or significant internal clout be anything other than white men. Not unknown. So too with other professions I encounter: the glass ceiling is higher than it was a generation ago, but it’s still below the penthouse suite. Perhaps a woman becoming President of the United States will milepost that changing, too.

                Administrative support positions I encounter (e.g., receptionists, clerks) are still mostly women, though. In the past few years I’m starting to see more men in these kinds of support positions. No difference in ability to perform, of course, and this too is part of moving towards equality.

                I exempt “paralegals” from this analysis because there is a wide spectrum of duties that are assigned to people who are assigned those titles. I notice that firms who delegate more routinized, fill-out-the-form sorts of paralegal work tend to have almost exclusively women in that role; firms that expect higher degrees of autonomy and exercise of independent judgment to their paralegals (and presumably which compensate accordingly) are much closer to gender parity (though there still seem to be more women than men).

                So yeah, there is some filtering going on with my vision of the world. Absolutely. From what I see, though, there is zero evidence that women are unable to do any of the things that men are doing, and every bit as well (or not). We’re not at equality yet, but the arc of history is clear and completing that transit appears to be more a matter of time than anything else. And in most other things, lawyers observe the trailing edge, not the leading edge, of the waves of cultural and economic changes that affect people generally. It makes me regard statements along the lines of “girls don’t like science as much as boys” as antiquated.Report

            • Doctor Jay in reply to Kim says:

              I would call it “animus”. And yes, women have it, but they aren’t supposed to let you see it. Not in public. Many women have internalized this, and have been made to believe that they shouldn’t have it. And that’s a problem, too.

              Though, @kim I’m pretty sure that you have not internalized it, or at least have done a lot of work to free yourself from it. That’s assuming you are female, you appear to present as such.Report

    • Doctor Jay in reply to Damon says:

      Your statement, “women might not be as interested in science as men are” is one of those things that might well be true of the world As We Find It Today, but not at all representative of What Might Be Possible.

      There’s a definite cultural bias that says Math is Male and Humanities are Female. This is show with research, including implicit association tests and so on. The gender of the subject doesn’t matter, everyone exhibits this bias to some degree. And so yes, there is a cultural transmission between girls and young women that doing all that math and engineering and so on isn’t very girly.

      This makes the one student Oscar writes about important. By cultivating a highly gendered self-presentation and a highly gendered social network while doing some hard core math, science and engineering, she is undermining the Math is Male trope in a way that a young woman who neutralized her gender presentation (you know, pants, short hair, using the color blue rather than pink, etc) would not. So, while this sort of thing first struck me as odd, I welcome it now. It isn’t the only strategy, but it’s a good one.Report

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to Doctor Jay says:

        @doctor-jay Nails it.

        IIRC it’s been shown that women tend to prefer the biological & social sciences over math, physics, & chemistry due to an inherent tendency towards nurturing, etc. But from what I’ve read, no one is sure how much of that is an actual biological tendency & how much is social pressure (i.e. it’s more socially acceptable for girls to want to be doctors, nurses, biologists, etc. as opposed to mathematicians, engineers, chemists, etc.).

        Women who prefer the physical sciences over the biological get painted as odd.

        I saw some of that at the fair, girls who presented as just “One of the guys”, but I saw a lot of other young women who were not trying to subdue their gender.

        And before anyone asks about it, there were no girls trying to sex it up. There were quite a few female judges, and our assignments were pretty random, so relying on sex appeal to gain favor would be a crap shoot. Everyone was well dressed.Report

        • Kim in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

          Were there any boys trying to sex it up?
          (Note: apparently the same techniques work on gay guys and straight women, so… judging purely by the sex of the judges is probably not the best way to judge potential effectivity of “sexing it up”)Report

    • Kim in reply to Damon says:

      Life ain’t liberal, people ain’t equal, and there really aren’t two sexes.
      Most of the folks you see who are in any way smart are intersexed, to one degree or another (and are fucked up in the head, because that’s part of how you get to be smart).

      Women, in general, aren’t interested in science. But men, in general, aren’t interested in science either.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Damon says:

      As for the “real geniuses,” I’ma go ahead and posit that the 40 years’ experience has a lot more to do with their abilities than the penises.Report

      • Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Real geniuses don’t need experience to be fantastic at things that they’ve never done before.
        Check out Persona 4’s character designs if you don’t believe me. (google image search for ’em. See how many fashion don’ts you can spot — they’re actually done quite well, but the creator wanted a challenge)Report

      • Damon in reply to Burt Likko says:

        These two guys have been around a while yes, but I’ve encountered enough anecdotes of their brainstorming sessions conclude that their intelligence is significantly higher than the mean for males.

        I also wasn’t trying to say that men are smarter than women in absolute terms, I was saying that men’s intelligence range greater over the curve, encompassing more stupider guys and more highly intelligence guys, while women’s seems to be more narrower.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to Damon says:

          I can speculate on why, depending on how you think that narrow range falls relative to the range for males.

          My suspicion is, if you were to somehow measure, that women have a narrower range that falls on the high side of the male range. Not because women are necessarily smarter, but because men would (still will, to be honest) tolerate a lot more stupid shit from other men than from a woman.

          When I was in the Navy, my rating (job classification) was opened up to women. During the last few weeks of my ‘A’ school, the first two women to make it into the GS rating started school (and boy, is that a story for another time). After my motorcycle wreck, when it was clear I wasn’t going back to my unit any time soon, my old crew got a woman as my replacement, and man did I hear about it. How stupid she was, how many mistakes she made, how she was a danger on an LCAC, she shouldn’t be a GS, etc. Thing was, the unit had their fair share of men who would doing crap far worse than anything I heard about this woman, but they weren’t considered a “danger to have on an LCAC” or someone who shouldn’t be in the rating, even if no one wanted to crew with them.Report

          • Kim in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            It is… roughly, true, the idea that “men” have more geniuses than women — there are more paths towards being a genius from the XY set than from the XX set (where we ought to bear in mind that geniuses are intersexed in the brain).

            And yes, more men tend to be LD and intellectually disabled than women — and there are a lot more of those than there are of geniuses of any stripe, so men are actually statistically worse than women at many things.

            But, um, the tricky thing is — for nearly everything, we don’t need geniuses. And guys have a notable tendency to be worse at details and safety than women do (this is somewhat irrespective of intelligence).

            Women make better programmers, better doctors, better nurses — and better engineers.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Damon says:

      As I said:

      But then I get a reminder of how far things have come, as one of the other judges related a story of her time as an undergrad back in the 80’s, where there was one engineering professor who would not speak to the women who took his class.

      So 30 years ago, engineering colleges still had teaching faculty who viewed women as unworthy to learn the discipline. You think that doesn’t factor into it?Report

      • Troublesome Frog in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        This is one reason why I think we’re going to have a hard time clearly separating variables in the “Why don’t women go into science?” question for a good many years. Your decision to go into an industry is based partially on the state of the industry and the views of society when you start your education, so there are a bunch of feedback loops going on. Even if science and tech were 100% woman friendly starting today, it would be years before the number of women in those industries settled to their new natural averages. Maybe that new percentage is 30% women, maybe it’s 70% women.

        It’s similar to the “Why so few female executives?” question. Part of it may be a current culture of exclusion. Part of it is probably that executive traits like decisiveness and assertiveness are frowned upon in women. And part of it is that to become an executive, you usually need to spend years working your way through other management positions and being promoted by more senior executives, so the time constant for cultural change is very long.

        When people were giving Jerry Seinfeld grief for not having women on the first season of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, there was a big discussion about whether he was sexist for not thinking women were funny and for having very few women in his circle of comedian friends. That could be part of it. I don’t know Jerry Seinfeld that well. But Ari Shaffir said something like, “It doesn’t necessarily mean he thinks women aren’t funny now. It could just mean that the comedy club booking agents in the 1980s and early 90s when he was making his oldest comedy friends didn’t think women were funny.”Report

        • Kim in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

          Even Judy Greer’s hair is funny. (seriously, catch her on Archer — it was so wrong they had to let her into the makeup truck to fix it).Report

          • Troublesome Frog in reply to Kim says:

            Judy Greer is so awesome that she even stands out as great on Archer, and Archer is one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen.Report

            • Kim in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

              Have you watched Bob’s Burgers? Archer is basically people from other shows cosplaying as secret agents (or, in Kitty’s place, the secretary).Report

              • Troublesome Frog in reply to Kim says:

                I like Bob’s Burgers, but mainly because the cast is good. I’ll take a look at anything Eugene Mirman or Kristen Schaal are doing, and I’ve liked Jon Benjamin since Dr. Katz (which I sorely miss). But Archer is just dense with joke writing. At its best, it can be relentlessly funny in a way not a lot of other shows can.Report

      • El Muneco in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        It seems to me that there isn’t a set of hurdles to be jumped, but a racecourse where you can only see the next jump after you clear the previous one:
        – Educational: You don’t get any opportunities because you can’t get the training
        – Structural: No one hires you
        – Traditional: You can’t progress past a certain point because (it is believed that) you can’t (lead others, pass a non-normalized test) which is considered to be necessary
        – Soft skills: You lose out at higher levels because others had better networking opportunities earlier in their careers

        Felt most by trailblazers, as to a first approximation the best solution for each hurdle is a critical mass of people passing the previous one.

        For example, I don’t think it’s entirely accident that we have a serious female Presidential candidate coming out of a cabinet post – at just about the time that we have had enough current and surviving former female cabinet members to form an informal network, with an institutional memory for survival strategies and the like, so that new members of the club don’t have to deal either with being inundated with crap or deriving from scratch ways to handle the crap. And can just get on with their careers.Report

    • J_A in reply to Damon says:

      I went to engineering school in the 80s (electrical power to be precise), and, through some fluke, in our group of about 40 people (electrical power ain’t the most popular major) about 25% were women. It was indeed a total fluke, since the average for the classes above and below us was about two women per class

      Contrary to what you might think, electrical power is very math intensive (linemen are not college graduates, college graduates don’t climb pylons), and in those days, computing was revolutionizing the field. Women in our group were at no disadvantage, and were quite successful, to the point that our Dean, also one of the most active and favorite lecturers, said in class that the women were kicking ass (in a more formal and appropriate language I cannot recall now).

      Regretfully, few of those women remain in the field today. One of them is now a very successful and powerful executive in a multinational Engineering and Construction firm (*), and a couple more remain in middle management in utilities or consulting firms, but fully adopted the mummy track. But most left to engage in part time jobs or to be fully housewives.

      One other of them has an interesting story too. She was burned by her own success. Having lead the EE discipline team in a three year refinery project, she was struck by the client’s request that she was to be the lead EE in their next project too. She was burned, resigned, went to business school, graduated with the highest grades (being one of the oldest in her class), and is now a prominent banker at Citibank, specializing in energy customers.

      I think part of the problem with women in engineering, is the (I believe mistaken) perception that those careers are not very compatible with being a wife and a mother, and therefore tend to avoid them. Having said that, I notice that women are very prominent nowadays in environmental engineering, but many of those come from biology, or perceived soft fields like urban studies.

      (*) Mary (her real name, hehe) is more remarkable because her husband became disabled in an accident, and cannot work any longer, and she was able to juggle her career with taking care of him. However, they never had kids, for reasons that they didn’t discloseReport

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to J_A says:

        The problem with the mommy track is that academia can actually be worse than industry for female engineers/scientists who want kids. A woman who takes time off for kids can lose out on a lot of research opportunities, and that loss can extend far beyond the time she may take for maternity leave. A lot of women have reported feeling sidelined until their kids are all in school, basically treating them as unreliable researchers until the kids require less daily care. This is often independent of how much spousal support there is for the childcare, and I suspect it’ll persist until there has been enough generational changing of the guard to kill off old beliefs regarding how effective a parent can be at work.

        And, of course, the students who a trained in such environments pick up on that, and internalize it, and the wheel keeps turning.

        Of course, some women, when they have kids, just want to be stay at home moms. Nothing wrong with that either.Report

  2. I’ve judged History Fairs–skits, poster/diarama presentations, video documentaries, and research papers–and by far my favorites are the non-research papers, because then I get to meet the kids in person and hear them talk about their project. Sometimes I got paired with a judge who was overly critical or worse, wanted to show how much he/she knew about the kid’s subject, even though at the judges’ orientation we’re all told “the interview is the time for the kids to show off, not to be criticized. Any criticism should be in the comments you write” (and of course, follow the “two good things for every bad thing” rule).

    Judging research essays is the more challenging and frankly not my favorite, although that’s what I’ve been doing the last 10 years or so. (It fits more easily in my schedule, because I can spend an evening at a judging event where it’s harder to go to the actual fair, which is on a weekend). It’s there I see the biggest disparities between schools. We don’t know which school the essay writer comes from, but it’s pretty clear that some have better training than others.

    I find it’s much harder to put on my “these are middle schoolers and high schoolers and shouldn’t be judged as if they were graduate students” hat with the essays than with the other projects. Perhaps that’s because as a middle schooler/high schooler/college student/adult, I’ve never been able to make a very good presentation/diarama, act well in skits, or make video documentaries and therefore am much more impressed by even mediocre work in that arena. But I think it also helps that I get to meet the kids in person when it comes to those projects and not when it comes to essays.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this.Report

  3. Mike Dwyer says:


    I’m not a science guy, though I am definitely an admirer. With that said I just want to say how thoroughly I enjoyed this post. Your observations show a very measured and unbiased assessment of the event, IMO, and I commend you for that.

    As a father of two daughters, the youngest of whom may not be a great fit for traditional higher education, I’m thinking about what you had to say about women in science as it might relate to other fields. For example, some of the trades. Electricians, plumbers, carpenters, etc. If I had a teenage son and mentioned learning a trade he might at least consider it. I tell my daughter and she rolls her eyes. I suspect that would be a similar experience for many parents. That’s not pressure coming from people already in the field but from the girls themselves. Is there any of this dynamic in the sciences? Is the opposition coming from both directions?Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      The pressure comes from a lot of angles. A big part of it is a lack of role models girls can relate to. The girl in my post, I suspect, had a parent or close family member in the sciences who probably cultivated an interest within her. And this is not limited to girls. Boys will avoid roles traditionally seen as a female role absent a role model who can help them break out of that kind of thinking.

      So for your daughter, if she knew and respected a person in the trades, someone who showed her such work is not beyond or beneath her, then that possibility can be opened. And the thing is, that person need not be of the same gender, although that helps. They just need to believe themselves that gender doesn’t matter, and be willing to share what they know.

      Also, skilled trades are no longer limited to carpenter, welder, machinist, etc. There are whole fields of para-professionals that don’t require a college degree.Report

      • You make a good point about boys having the same problems, hence the lack of male nurses, dental hygienists, executive assistants, etc.Report

      • J_A in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        Some years ago, I was part of an equestrian team (I was the oldest!!!) and there was a girl in the team that was finishing high school, and had no idea what she wanted to do in college.

        I told her my “women are good engineers” spiel, how successful they can be, how interesting the work is. And then she left for college, left the team, and I didn’t hear the end of the story.

        Her mother emailed me some months ago to let me know that she is graduating this coming May with her M.Sc in Industrial Engineering, and already has a job lined at Tetrapak. She wanted to share it with me because Caroline (her real name) always says that I was the one that prodded her to at least consider an engineering majorReport

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to J_A says:

          I always love a “positive influence” story. So much better that the “warning to others” story I have regarding so many of the people I grew up with…Report

  4. Jaybird says:

    This was great.

    I wonder if, 30 years hence, fluid dynamics will be the new volcano.

    I hope it will.Report

  5. Michael Cain says:

    I have to admit that I hated the science/engineering fair the year I was forced to participate. Even then, my interests were slanted towards math and algorithms. Not something that you get much support for in a small town in Iowa. Of course, there wasn’t enough computing power readily available then to do anything embedded, which might have interested the teachers and/or judges (as well as me). And I’ve always disliked being forced to compete in academics. Enough so that I disappointed both the math and computer science departments at the U of Nebraska, declining to be on their competitive teams when asked when I was a senior.

    It sounds like there were some projects that leaned more that way, which pleases me.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain says:

      Oh, I think you would have loved it. One I recall seeing (but not diving into) had something to do with using cloud based resources to process reactor telemetry and initiate control commands. Another was linking aerial and ground based drones together for search and rescue (tell the network what is being looked for, the aerials spot it, and the ground based ones make contact on the ground).Report

  6. Will H. says:

    The way that I have seen yield strength & shear strength tested is by a device with a big hammer-looking weight that swings down and smashes it in two. The weight is attached to a dial, and the dial has two needles. The one stops at the yield strength, and the second stops at the shear strength.
    This is not a matter of calculating those values, but of proving materials conform to specifications.
    I have no doubt it would work with the carbon fiber.
    All it needs is a big enough weight.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Will H. says:

      Shear is tested that way. Tensile & compressive strength use a push-pull rig (usually hydraulic). Bending, what the young lady was testing, can also be done with a push-pull rig with a slightly different configuration.

      What she did was build a lever mounted at the top of a frame. One end of the lever was attached to the free end of the cantilevered beam, the other had a sand bag on it, that was slowly filled with sand until yield. Then the sand was weighed.Report