Girls Get Science (and Invention)

On Saturday, March 23, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a special evening program called “Girls Get Science,” which was sponsored by The Great Adventure Lab and took place at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, Maryland. The other panelists included my Smithsonian colleague Dr. Marguerite Toscano, a marine scientist and paleobiologist at the National Museum of Natural History, and Dr. Betsy Pugel, a physicist and electrical engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The audience consisted of about 40 parents (some of whom are also teachers) from the DC metro area with about 40 of their daughters who are in grades 2-6.

Girls participating in nanotech activities.

Participating in nanotechnology activities in Spark!Lab.

The panelists and parents participated in a lively and thought-provoking 75-minute Q&A session facilitated by Great Adventure Lab president Joan Rigdon about how to support and encourage girls’ interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) activities and possibly inspire them to pursue related careers. We talked a lot about the importance of having female role models (such as my fellow panelists!) from science, invention, and related fields. We also discussed ways to make STEM experiences more fun, social, interdisciplinary (including art, which makes it STEAM), and relevant to the “real world” to keep girls engaged through their teen years when typically their enthusiasm and participation wanes due to social and cultural pressures. While parents were discussing their potential futures, the daughters were in nearby classrooms totally engrossed in hands-on activities about basic robotics, video game programming, and engineering.

Girls inventing robots in Spark!Lab.

Inventing robots in Spark!Lab.

After the official Q&A, the panelists and parents joined the girls to see their inventive creations and talk more on-one for about 45 minutes. Several parents told me they had loved spending time previously with their children in the Lemelson Center’s Spark!Lab and asked eagerly when it would reopen [answer: late spring 2015 when the National Museum of American History’s west wing first floor reopens]. A girl, about 7-8 years old I’d bet (a key age for budding inventors), came up to me and quietly shared that she had been working on an invention at home but it had failed. I explained to her that failure is an important, in fact essential, part of the invention process and all inventors have to fail in order to learn. Indeed Thomas Edison is quoted as saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Then I asked if she would go back to her invention and keep tinkering, and she said she would, she had a couple of ideas to try to make it work. While we were talking she was sticking a Spark!Lab pin onto her shirt very intently.

Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of Kevlar, portraying in "Invention at Play."

Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of Kevlar, portrayed in “Invention at Play.”

Since the Lemelson Center was founded in 1995, we’ve had the great fortune of researching, documenting, and highlighting an array of amazing historic and contemporary women inventors. One woman at the “Girls Get Science” event came up to tell me she was proud to know already about Kevlar® inventor Stephanie Kwolek, who I mentioned during the Q&A as one of my favorite women inventors I had the opportunity to meet. It turned out she learned about Kwolek while visiting the Center’s Invention at Play exhibition that I worked on as the project historian and later project director. Kwolek is one of 6 featured case studies in the exhibition, along with stories of other women inventors including Marjorie Stewart Joyner, Sally Fox, and Gertrude Elion, Patsy Sherman, Ruth Foster, Krysta Morlan, Ann Moore, and Lydia O’Leary, and Annetta Papadopoulos of the IDEO team.

Inventor Patricia Bath meets with female students.

Patricia Bath, inventor of the Laserphaco Probe, talks with female students during an Innovative Lives presentation.

Some of the women inventors above were participants in the Center’s Innovative Lives program series. You can read more about them there along with: Patricia Bath, inventor of the Laserphaco Probe for the treatment of cataracts; astronaut and electrical engineer Ellen Ochoa; and GirlTech founder Janese Swanson. For a sampling of additional stories, please read my colleagues’ thoughtful “Bright Ideas” blogs about Fresh Paper inventor Kavita Shukla and “Boater” diaper cover inventor Marion O’Brien Donovan, and referring to actress/inventor Hedy Lamarr at the end of a recent blog about Michael Jackson (yes, he was an inventor too!). Also, listen to some fascinating Inventive Voices podcasts both with women such as co-founder Rachna Choudhry, NASA food scientist Vicki Kloeris, and neonatal products inventor Sharon Rogone, and about women like industrial psychologist Lillian Gilbreth, computer programmer Grace Hopper, and hair care products entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker. Finally, for more historical perspective, check out a 1999 article by Center senior historian Joyce Bedi titled “Exploring the History of Women Inventors.”

The Lemelson Center is always looking for more and different stories from and about women inventors and is interested in documenting them throughout American history. If you have stories to share, let us know. Happy women’s history month!

The International Symposium of Science Museums

“Mamma mia, here I go again
My my, how can I resist you
Mamma mia, does it show again
My my, just how much I’ve missed you…”

To ABBA’s surprise, I’m sure, as well as mine, their song “Mamma Mia” will always remind me of my September trip to South Korea. Yes, you read that correctly. The disco classic was sung by an all-girls pop group during a special banquet honoring the participants, organizers, and VIPs involved in the 2012 International Symposium of Science Museums in Busan. This entertainment offering was a most unexpected conference experience, especially while jet lagged.

I had arrived late the previous night after a 14+ hour flight from Washington, D.C., to Seoul, a four-hour layover, and then another flight to Busan, the country’s second largest city on the southern coast. Thanks to melatonin and a comfortable hotel bed, I managed to sleep normal hours, and awoke to the morning sunshine feeling relatively energetic. So I took a nice long stroll along neighboring Haeundae beach, a popular spot with Korean vacationers during the summer.

Courtesy of ISSM.

I felt very fortunate to be among a small group of mostly European and American museum professionals invited to speak at the symposium. At the Bexco convention center we were led through a large meeting room to our name-tagged seats at the front tables and provided with headsets for simultaneous Korean-English translations. I imagined this must be a taste of what it is like to attend United Nations meetings.

Official welcomes included remarks by Hang Sik Park, president of the National Science Museum of Korea, which was hosting the conference. Then we heard an interesting keynote address by Sarah George, the director of Utah’s Natural History Museum. After that, we beheld another surprising performance—a musical theater piece by a Korean group called Vollklang Solisten about the connections between Western classical music and Pythagorean math. I cannot begin to describe it adequately here.

Photo by Ellen Wetmore.

During the first session I was one of five panelists discussing STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) education at science museums and informal learning organizations. It is a strange experience to speak to about 200 people listening to translations, so they would nod, smile, or chuckle in response to things I said about a minute after I said them. I shared stories about a broad range of Lemelson Center projects supporting STEAM education and 21st Century Skills. Overall, even in my jet lagged haze, I think my presentation went well and audience members posed some thoughtful questions during the Q&A section at the end of the session.

That evening the presenters were bused to Nurimaru, a spaceship-like building in Dongbaek Park, for the aforementioned banquet hosted by the Federation of Busan Science and Technology. The event began with individual introductions of Korean VIPs who stood and bowed. Then each of the invited foreign speakers were also introduced in Korean, so we had to listen carefully for our names, then stand and bow too. After that there were several official speeches in Korean for which we received English translation handouts.

Courtesy of ISSM.

We savored a delicious, seven course, very continental-style dinner accompanied by Bordeaux wine. I was seated with, among others, YP Kim, the director of the Busan Aquarium, which we had a chance to visit the following day. Mr. Kim is from Seoul originally but has lived in both the U.S. and Canada and actually did some translation work at the Smithsonian around 1982. My tablemates were interesting to converse with despite my hitting a wall around 8:30 p.m. and barely being able to think straight.

Now back to my reference about the night’s entertainment. The pop quintet danced about the stage playing traditional Korean instruments while singing ABBA with an electronic beat pounding in the background. My Swedish colleague Ann Follin, director of the Tekniska Museet (National Museum of Science and Technology) in Stockholm, was even more surprised than I. We shared a good chuckle about the experience two days later when we traveled via train to Daejeon with a Korean colleague, Hannah Lee, of 4D Frame.

The ABBA Performance.

In Daejeon, Ann, Hannah, and I enjoyed visiting the National Science Museum where we met up with Min-Jung Kim, who I had worked with when she was a visiting professional at the Smithsonian last year. Min-Jung and her associate Suk Yeong Lee gave us a wonderful tour of the Museum’s complex of buildings with exhibits covering the history, present, and future of Korean science and technology. I took lots of photos to show my colleagues.

National Science Museum's Discovery Center.

Thanks to Ann, I was invited to join her meeting at nearby KAIST, the Korean Advanced Institute for Science and Technology. We spoke with research assistant professor Namyoung Heo and senior researcher Young Ju Lee about KAIST’s new Center for Entrepreneurship as well as their Global Institute for Talented Education. The meeting content was right up my proverbial alley professionally, as Ann had surmised, and she and I had lots to talk about afterwards as we taxied back to the train station and then traveled on to Seoul.

Monica and Min-Jung Kim. Photo by Ann Follin.

It was a whirlwind business trip, with three days of international travel for four days in South Korea. My heartfelt thanks to the organizers of the International Symposium of Science Museums, my fellow presenters, and all of the people who hosted me in Busan and Seoul. It is an experience I will never forget.