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Mars (And the Rest of Outer Space) Needs Women

"I want to see my children go to Mars. And I'd love to see my grandchildren go to other galaxies."

Brian Virgo/AOL Inc.

Gwynne Shotwell, the president and COO of SpaceX, has one small request: America should spend more on tech and science education, for both boys and girls, than it does on beer.

“Spending on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education in public education about equals what we spend on beer. Not beer and pizza. Not beer and wine. Beer,” Shotwell said on Tuesday, speaking onstage at the first Makers Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we dropped five points in the last 15-year-olds’ math and science test.”

As the number of young women studying in the overall STEM fields stays stubbornly low — and the quality of science education for both sexes seems to be falling — five leaders in space and tech came together to talk about the situation at the conference. Introduced by Megan Smith, who is a VP at Google’s “moon shot” offshoot Google X (and, full disclosure, is married to Re/code co-executive editor Kara Swisher), the talk featured some of the most powerful people in rocket science: Shotwell, Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe, and NASA astronauts Cady Coleman and Mae Jemison.

“I want to see my children go to Mars. And I’d love to see my grandchildren go to other galaxies,” said Shotwell, who admitted that she became an engineer because she saw one speak and liked her suit and shoes. “I actually feared telling this story for years, but I’m 50 now, so I can do whatever I want.”

Coleman talked about her six months living on the International Space Station, and described how there is truly nothing up there/out there that a woman can’t do. She paused at a slide showing a supply ship, sent by Shotwell, approaching the space station against the backdrop of a cloudy blue Earth. It happened to be coming up from around the Finger Lakes region of New York state.

Smith jumped up and pointed on the map to exactly where the Seneca Falls Convention — the first women’s rights convention — was held in 1848.

“There’s a serendipity,” Smith said. “We’re looking at where we are and where we came from.”

But that path from women uniting in Seneca to women coordinating space stations has been complicated. The number of women in STEM areas (or STEAM — if you add an “A” is for the arts) has not grown steadily. In fact, in some areas, it has rapidly shrunk.

“[Computer science] is the only discipline where the participation of women has dramatically declined,” said Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, a preeminent science and engineering school. “It’s gone from the middle 40s (percentile) in the mid ’80s to 15 percent … and at the same time, the job opportunities are incredible. The starting salaries are above $80,000.”

At Harvey Mudd, women accounted for just 10 percent of computer science majors in 2006, Klawe said, noting that she suspected that the low representation of women might be because of messaging around the course, rather than content. So she rebranded the introduction to the computer science course, adding in the words “creative” and “problem solving” to its description: The course started gaining in popularity among women immediately.

“We made it go from being the most despised course to the most loved course in one year,” Klawe said. In 2013, women accounted for 46 percent of computer science majors at Harvey Mudd.

Today, Klawe is organizing an online course to help middle- and high school teachers learn how to teach computer science in a way that appeals to females.

“This thing about wanting to attract more women — it’s not rocket science. It’s really easy. You just have to make it interesting.”

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