Digital library opens the world of science - without gender bias

She always wanted to write poetry. But mulling over the turn of a phrase or the rhythm of a line, she was told, was no ticket to financial stability.

So Sarita Nair spent her childhood in India mulling over computer languages instead, and quickly found herself surrounded by men in school and at work. "[Computer science] continues to be an area of gross underrepresentation of women," she says.

But she was there to learn, and she grew accustomed to feeling her way through the field without women to study with or emulate. What she didn't learn was how to combine her scientific abilities with her creative flair.

"I went in with the view that [computer science] had career potential, but without a real sense for how I could apply it to the things I had a real passion for," Ms. Nair says.

Today, as project director of the Gender and Science Digital Library (www.gsdl.org), an online collection of "gender-fair resources" in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), Nair hopes to help students who don't traditionally go into STEM-based careers fully explore how their personal talents and interests might be tapped (see cover story, at right).

If a student is good with computers, for example, but truly loves to draw, computer animation might be a perfect melding of the two talents. Without guidance from a variety of people in the field, Nair says, "it's sometimes a link [students] don't make on their own."

The GSDL was developed by the Gender, Diversities & Technology Institute based in Newton, Mass., as part of the National Science Foundation's initiative to create online education resources.

The virtual library catalogs books, articles, videos, curricula, and software as part of a larger effort to engage learners of all ages, but particularly females, in STEM education, as well as to connect students with mentors and other students who share their curiosity.

"We need to increase the general perception that girls and women can and do play an important role within the sciences," says Katherine Hanson, director of the institute.

Boys and girls could both benefit from greater exposure to women who are teachers, mentors, and historical figures, Nair says. "So many students are looking for something to aspire to," she says. "A resource like this would have opened up so much to me."

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