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Caltech to Harvard: Redo the Math

Times Staff Writer

Caltech’s 2005 chemical engineering class makes a strong case against Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ controversial hypothesis that men are innately more proficient in math and science.

The six-member class is made up entirely of women, a first in the Pasadena research university’s history. Except for one graduate who wants to study law, all are planning to pursue doctorates in engineering.

About 35% of the 217 Caltech graduates awarded diplomas on June 10 were women, up from 25% in 1995. The 114-year-old university, among the world’s most renowned science and technology institutes, began admitting women in 1970.

“For a long time, engineering was very much male-dominated,” said Rick Flagan, chairman of Caltech’s chemical engineering program. “We’ve reached the point where you can have a class that’s all women.”

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Interest in math- and science-related majors among women is on the rise at universities across the country. They earned 58% of the undergraduate degrees in life sciences, such as biology and chemistry, 47% in math and 40% in physical sciences, according to 2000 figures, the latest available from the National Science Foundation.

Those percentages have continued to increase in the last five years, says Jong-On Hahm, director of the National Research Council’s Committee on Women in Science and Engineering.

The uptick is largely attributed to Title IX, the 1972 law that bars discrimination against women in academic, athletic and professional programs that receive federal funding, Hahm said.

For example, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has spoken of writing as a child to NASA asking how she could become an astronaut after watching the first men walk on the moon, only to be told the program didn’t accept women.

Despite much progress, engineering still appeals to fewer women than other math and science fields. Just 19% of undergraduates earning engineering degrees in 2000 were women.

Revising Caltech’s curriculum is credited with helping to raise enrollment of both sexes in the chemical engineering program. Next year’s class includes seven women among 16 seniors.

Department faculty began updating the curriculum about five years ago to make it more relevant to the types of jobs graduates, particularly women, wanted to pursue.

The traditional academic track focused heavily on chemical processing. The new program has a broader reach that includes biochemistry, environmental engineering, aeronautics and semiconductor research.

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Hahm says Caltech’s approach is noteworthy because women often want jobs in which they can see the direct results of their work rather than simply focusing on theoretical research.

Shannon Lewis, 22, a member of the Caltech class of ’05, said that’s why she chose chemical engineering as her major. Although she loves working in the lab, she said, “It’s easier to stay motivated if you see a purpose to your work.”

Lewis said she is headed to the University of Texas at Austin to do postgraduate work in materials science and engineering, with plans to focus on semiconductor research. Such ambitions run counter to Summers’ hypothesis.

Speaking at an academic conference in January, the Harvard president sparked controversy when he suggested that men were more biologically suited to pursue careers in math and science than women.

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“Particularly in some attributes, that bear on engineering, there is reasonably strong evidence of taste differences between little girls and little boys that are in fact not attributable to socialization,” Summers said.

Responding to critics, including women from the Harvard faculty, Summers apologized for his remarks, acknowledging that his comments sent “an unintended signal of discouragement to talented girls and women.”

Flagan said he sees no difference in ability, interest or aptitude between male and female students at Caltech. The women “tend to be every bit as competitive, as rigorous in thinking and as demanding in what they expect in teaching and the kinds of things they want to do,” he said.

Students cited summer science programs, good teachers and mentors and summer jobs for encouraging their interest in science.

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When the private all-girls Catholic high school Lewis attended did not offer a calculus-based physics course, the Caltech chemical engineering major took it at a nearby boys’ school, showing up in her plaid-skirt uniform and knee socks.

She also worked several summers at a U.S. Army lab that developed night-vision goggles for the military. That was where she met her mentor, John Dinan, who urged her to attend Caltech, which his son attended.

A summer science program inspired graduate Michelle Giron, 21, who attended Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena. She credits science teacher Jack Blumenthal and other instructors with trying to get more girls interested in science, math and engineering careers. Blumenthal helped her get an internship at Caltech. Continuing her studies, Giron has enrolled in a doctoral program in chemical engineering at Cornell University beginning in the fall.

Others in Caltech’s 2005 graduation class include Maryam Ali, Haluna Gunterman, Victoria Loewer and Joan Karen Sum Ping.

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Radio commentator and writer Sandra Tsing Loh, this year’s commencement speaker, said her father, a scientist and a Caltech alumnus, played a big role in her decision to pursue a degree in physics at the prestigious university. Faculty and alumni have collected 31 Nobel prizes, mostly in physics and chemistry.

Tsing Loh, 43, said her father impressed upon his children that it was the “highest honor to win the Nobel, and physics the highest of the sciences ... so please win one.” Their devotion was such that the family would handicap possible Nobel Prize winners each year the way others anticipate the Academy Awards.

But Tsing Loh ultimately found her calling in graduate school at USC, where she studied liberal arts. Her disappointed father, she said, considered that the “equivalent of pole-dancing.”


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