Ada Lovelace Day: Teachers Are Important

It’s Ada Lovelace Day! October 16th is a day dedicated to women in science, technology, engineering, and math and their stories. Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer, writing algorithms for her friend Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, and is one of many too-often unsung female contributors to scientific fields. Many of the posts and discussions on Ada Lovelace day are about semi-famous or mostly obscure scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, but I want to write about some women a little closer to home: my high school teachers.

I was blessed with an array of really excellent math and science teachers (both male and female) all through high school, and while I suspect that I’d’ve ended up in science in some fashion regardless of my high school experience, those teachers helped me find my path in that direction. Lacking that support, I’d’ve probably found it eventually, but I’m not sure I’d’ve gone to university with the confidence and conviction that I was, in fact, in the right place for me; that self-assurance really helped me adjust to university life and flourish in my undergrad, even when things got stressful and difficult.

Not all my teachers were women, but those who were remain the clearer than most of the men in my memory, and made a larger imprint on my intellectual development than the male teaches did. I learned calculus from a tiny, very unassuming looking woman who could strike fear in the heart of any surly teenager who dared cross her, and I learned chemistry from a pair of outgoing, devil-may-care women who routinely flouted sense and featured explosions and dramatic chemical reactions in their classes. The three of them showed me that science and math was exciting, interesting, and accessible to me. Their enthusiasm for their subjects was palpable, and the encouraged their female students to stick with science and math; just the fact that they were there at the front of the classroom was proof that there was a place for women in science and math. I was fortunate to have male teachers who were also supportive, or at the the very least not discouraging to their female students, but hearing and seeing it from women, who’d lived the experience of being women in mostly-male fields, carried a lot more weight. Seeing them as successful teachers, respected by their departments and for the most part their students, showed me that you could be taken seriously as a woman in science. It’s one thing to hear someone say “you should stick with math, and there’s a place for you in the field,” but it’s another thing to see a women teaching math and chemistry, talking about their previous work experiences, and showing you it’s possible and within your grasp, even if you’re a woman.

When I was younger, I didn’t know much about the history of science, and I didn’t have much of a grasp of how women and their considerable contributions have been systematically erased from the annals of science. I didn’t have heroines (or heroes really, for that matter) to look up to to say “I want to be like Ada Lovelace, or Marie Curie, or Emily Noether, or Rosalind Franklin, or….” Maybe then, in the absence of knowledge of many more famous historical or contemporary women in science, the presence of women at the front of my classrooms took on a bit of extra importance. It’s certainly important to talk about the under-appreciated contributors to science, but there’s potential (and accessible!) role models for girls in classrooms, too.

There’s lots of organizations and groups that are working to normalize the place of women in science, but it seems sensible, given the namesake of the day, to suggest having a look at the Ada Initiative, which aims to get women involved in the open source and open access community (which is very heavily male, even by computer science standards). The full directory of Ada Lovelace Day posts is here, and includes posts from previous years, and is chock full of great reading material.

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