Thursday, August 19, 2010

Guest Post: Wilbur and Orville's Mom

Introducing fellow science diplomat Natalie Straup.  As we add more writers to this blog I will continue to update a list of diplomats on the right side of the page.  For a quick intro, Natalie is master's level mechanical engineer working for a major defense contractor.  Her post does a great job telling a mostly forgotten story of science and technology.

           The Wright Brothers

On this 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, let’s take a minute to talk about women in science and technology.  I must admit, I don’t give this topic much thought on a day-to-day basis.  However, I was talking to a co-worker about his recent summer vacation to the Outer Banks a few days ago when an ordinary discussion suddenly got interesting.  In particular, he was rehashing his trip to Kitty Hawk, the site of the Wright Brothers’ historic first flight.  He asked me if I knew that the Wrights’ mother, Susan, had been their go-to source for mechanical advice.   Back up a second – the Wrights’ mom?  What? 

Photograph of Susan Wright
      Susan Wright

After a little digging around, I found out that Susan was a remarkable woman.  It’s hard to imagine anyone, let alone a woman raising children over a hundred years ago, making her own appliances.  Without her guidance, it’s possible the Wright Brothers might never have employed the scientific methods that ultimately led to their success.  It’s equally remarkable that I’ve never heard this aspect of the story before.  There are several organizations for women in science and aerospace.  Our schools and colleges are scrambling to find ways to inspire tomorrow’s female engineers.  Even NASA and Mary J. Blige are teaming up to encourage women to pursue the sciences.  This is not a new concept – it’s been going on for decades.  So why aren’t we more successful at it?

Perhaps we’ve been holding up the wrong role models.  Amelia Earhart, for all her accomplishments, is best known for being the first woman to achieve what men had already done.  While that is certainly admirable, it’s not exactly awe-inspiring for anyone to follow in another’s footsteps.  Think about the top women role models we have today.  Not many that immediately come to mind are known for the ground-breaking work they’ve done to advance the fields of science and mathematics.  Sally Ride?  Humankind had already been to space.  Even the famed California Governor and First Lady’s Conference on Women has just one scientist speaking this year, among several journalists and actresses who will be taking the floor.

This is not to say that we lack examples of extraordinary women in technical fields.  Marie Curie is but one example.  If we truly want to get girls excited about science, however, we are going to have to do more to recognize the ground-breakers in our midst – whether they shine in their own spotlight (in Mrs. Curie’s case, she glowed) or they are the driving force behind those who do, like Susan Wright.

So go call your mother and tell her thanks.

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