Friday, October 7, 2011

Ada Lovelace Day

Who is Ada Lovelace, you might ask? The super-short answer is the only (legitimate) child of Lord Byron, a correspondent of Charles Babbage, and a talented mathematician. Today, people worldwide are writing about women in science and technology to celebrate her too-short life.

I've got three women I want to talk about, all scientists or science educators, who have been immensely influential to me. I can also virtually guarantee that you will have heard of no more than two of them, no matter how well you know me.

The first of these is Brenda Ginther, the now-retired chemistry teacher at Everett High School while I was in attendance there. I've never asked her, but I'm pretty sure that she was the (relative) pre-NCLB rarity of a science teacher who really had a background in science and not just in education. I had a blast in both classes I took with her, and greatly appreciated the trust she showed in allowing me to (try to) make a batch of homemade black powder as part of my AP Physics final. (Short version of long story: class was building/launching model rockets. With sign-off from both teacher involved, I packed mine with a black powder charge with the intention of blowing the USS Smithereens to same.) Largely because of the two classes I took with her, I became a chemistry major.

Next on the list: Judith Burstyn, tenured faculty at the University of Wisconsin. She's a bioinorganic chemist, which means that what she studies are the metal atoms in proteins and enzymes and the effects they have. (This is a tremendous oversimplification, intended to try to unpack the word bioinorganic for the non-chemist audience. Dr. Burstyn, please forgive me.) However, I learned from colleagues who taught for her about what I now refer to as the "pick your poison" model of test writing, something I have taken with me to every position I have subsequently held. Tiering problems by difficulty and thinking skills involved, I write somewhere between 150% and 200% of the amount of test a student actually has to complete, and then make them select the problems they attempt (within specific guidelines). If you're a former student of mine reading this, you have her to blame.

Last is Dr. Cathy Middlecamp. Cathy also works at the University of Wisconsin, as permanent academic staff. She heads the Chemistry Learning Center there, teaches a one-semester class that's primarily taken by allied health science (e.g., nursing, dental hygiene) students, and is one of the co-authors of the ACS's Chemistry in Context. Cathy gave me some room to try to grow as somebody interested in education, letting me organize a symposium for an ACS national meeting while I was still a graduate student, and running an independent study section under her wing during the semester before my Ph.D. defense. She's also influenced a lot of how I think about what pieces of chemistry need to be taught, more than I can really go into here.

So those are my Ada Lovelace tributes. Ladies, thank you all. I very much would not be the person I am today had I not met any one of you, let alone all.

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