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Upper Schoolers Explore the Contributions of Women in Science

On the first day of the Upper School elective Women in Science, students were asked to write about who they pictured when they thought of a scientist. The majority of responses focused on Albert Einstein. While it may be unsurprising that the renowned physicist is so ingrained in the popular imagination, the subject of the course challenged students’ preconceived notions — introducing them to the often-untold history of women who have shaped the field of science.

Julie Torres, Calhoun’s Academic Dean for Grades 6-12, was inspired to teach this elective because of her own experience in the scientific world. She was pre-med in college, and says, “Throughout all my science classes, I always remember thinking, where are the women in science? I didn’t see them represented.” In creating the curriculum for Women in Science, Julie set out to expand the narrative. “My goal was to elevate women's voices and experiences to understand how women have been contributors to scientific knowledge,” she says.

Women scientists studied by students

The course provided students with a broad overview of the history of women in science. Students delved into the stories of key figures such as Marie Curie, Rebecca Lee Crumpler and Chien-Shiung Wu. They learned how for much of history, women were excluded from formal education and careers in the field. They discussed the concept of the Matilda effect, a bias against the achievements of women scientists. “We had a conversation about how some voices disappear into the background, and history gets rewritten,” says Julie. 

Upper Schoolers also explored the troubled history of women as victims of scientific advances, including such infamous cases as Henrietta Lacks, the unwitting subject of medical research, or the Radium Girls, who contracted radiation poisoning from their jobs as factory workers. The course looked at how sex and gender were not included as variables in scientific research until recently, and the impact of this choice on women’s health. 

The course was interdisciplinary in nature, combining multiple subjects and forms of media, relying heavily on primary sources that centered women’s voices and experiences. Students listened to audio recordings about influential women scientists, did close annotations of texts, examined case studies on women who have been overlooked for Nobel Prizes, and even participated in a science lesson. The opportunity to engage with content in a variety of ways deepened students’ connections and presented a layered view of the history they were learning. 

Grappling with this complex history gave students a broader perspective of how women have contributed to the advancement of human knowledge, and upturned the idea of science as a male-dominated field. And while Julie says some of her students were surprised at the bias and inequality that they learned about, it also opened their minds to the possibilities. “It was great to see their expectations of what the world should be and look like, because what the world becomes is ultimately in their hands.”