Below, Maia Weinstock responds to questions about how she taught WGS.S10 History of Women in Science and Engineering.
Maia Weinstock: I’ve been interested in the topic for many years, and have worked on numerous writings and projects relating to the history of women in the STEM fields. The most well-known of these is a series of LEGO minifigures I’ve been crafting and photographing featuring scientists and engineers. Four of these became part of a real set sold in stores in the late fall of 2017 (LEGO Women of NASA). I wanted to teach the course as a way to impart the considerable knowledge I’ve amassed about this area over the years, and to give students a sense of MIT’s own history in relation to the women who have come through and made their mark.
Maia Weinstock: We had a fairly small class, but even so, a few students did tend to volunteer their perspectives and thoughts more than others. In some cases, I simply made sure to go through and ask each student in the class for an opinion. Other times, I would ask open ended questions that had many answers and asked for more answers after some of the more vocal students had already made suggestions. Occasionally I would cold-call individuals if they really needed an extra push to offer their thoughts. Mostly I found that these students simply needed a little encouragement, as the perspectives they provided tended to be just as thoughtful as those of the more regular contributors.
Maia Weinstock: In 2012, I attended an unconference hosted by the Ada Initiative, a now-defunct organization that supported women in open projects, including things like Wikipedia. As part of that, I was invited to give a 60-second lightning talk, which was what introduced me to the concept. The idea is to learn how to distill a subject into its essence, and also to have fun with the topic. I wanted students to learn to pick out what they considered the most important aspects of their subjects’ lives, and I also wanted to bring a bit of levity into the classroom by doing something a little different than our regular discussions. Sixty seconds is actually fairly long for this exercise—you actually can squeeze a lot into that time—so educators might consider trying it with 30 seconds instead.
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Maia Weinstock: I have been a longtime contributor to Wikipedia, with the goal of improving the representation of women both on the pages of Wikipedia as well as behind the scenes as editors. We know through various surveys that 85 to 90 percent of Wikipedia editors are male, which means that only 10-15 percent of editors are women. Over the past 5 years I’ve organized quite a few edit-a-thons aimed at countering bias in terms of women’s representation, so I wanted to bring that kind of experience to the classroom. Our 3-hour class served as an abbreviated edit-a-thon: I prepared a class page on Wikipedia and facilitated both the selection of subjects that might work and the hands-on editing. In the end, each student did create a new article, so this gives participants a way to feel that they’re contributing directly to improving the most popular encyclopedia in the world—while giving recognition to an underappreciated woman in engineering or science.
Maia Weinstock: I knew I wanted to visit the photographic glass plates collection at the Harvard College Observatory very early on in the planning of this class due to the unique place in astronomical history it had, and also due to the proximity and ease of access we enjoy with it here in Cambridge. It turned out that a new book, called The Glass Universe (2017), about the women who worked at the observatory in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries came out around the same time I was starting to think about plans for the class, so I went to hear author Dava Sobel speak on the book at the observatory in the spring of 2017. Afterward, I mentioned briefly to her that I was running this course in the fall, and she sounded interested, so over the summer we solidified a plan for her to join us on our field trip. Naturally, I had the students read her book, as well as a few other resources related to the women who both studied the glass plates and created important works relating to our evolving understanding of the universe. I also reached out to the curator of the glass plates collection, Lindsay Smith, and she ended up being our tour guide—and a wonderful one at that. So, I made sure to have the students read up on the women who’d worked there, and I did note to them that each would need to have a few questions at the ready for our guides, Dava and Lindsay. The trip worked out very well and was one of the highlights of the course for me and for the students as well.
I also reached out to the magnificent Deborah Douglas, curator of collections of the MIT Museum, a little closer to campus, about being a guest speaker. In addition to being a frequent public face for the museum, especially when it comes to special collections or exhibits, Deborah teaches a popular course on the history of MIT, and I thought she would offer a wealth of knowledge for the students. We ended up deciding to have the class visit her in the normally off-limits archival area of the museum; there, she showed us a bunch of artifacts relating to the history of women at MIT, and we had a nice conversation with the students relating to our readings and to Deborah’s experience as both a curator and historian of science. Deborah was wonderful— she is extremely knowledgeable about the Institute, and about the history of women in numerous STEM areas, so getting to have the students in my class interact with her there was a real treat.
Maia Weinstock: I started creating LEGOs in the likeness of scientists and engineers in early 2010, when I made one as a gift to my friend Carolyn Porco, who is a planetary scientist. I had been inspired by a minifigure of Ada Lovelace that I’d come across, but I wanted mine to depict current-day personalities because so few people can actually name a living scientist or engineer, much less a female one. Since then I’ve made over 100 of these figures of real individuals, taken photos and posted them to social media, and people have gotten a kick out of it. In 2012 I learned about the LEGO Friends line, which was a major push to provide a product aimed squarely at girls. Unfortunately, the line was problematic in a number of ways, so I started learning more about the history of female minifigures and writing about the lack of female characters in LEGO’s offerings, especially women in STEM professions. It seems like a fairly commonplace discussion in the media these days, but back in 2013 no one was talking about this. I actually broke the story of the first female lab scientist that LEGO came out with as part of their minifigures line, and I followed up with popular articles on diversity in the LEGO universe.
Around that same time, I learned about a crowdsourcing contest called LEGO Ideas (originally known as Cuusoo) whereby people can suggest ideas for LEGO to consider making. I was an early champion of the Female Minifigures set that surfaced on that site, which was later rebranded the Research Institute; LEGO chose to feature three scientists instead of women in very different professions. Anyway, I wanted to try suggesting ideas focused on actual women, since I’d been doing that for a few years already on my own at that point. My first go, a depiction of the four women who have been U.S. Supreme Court justices, unfortunately didn’t make it into the contest at all because it went against house rules about politics—but it went viral anyway when I shared photos on social media. A second try featuring women in bioengineering didn’t get much traction. But my third try, a set featuring five women in NASA history, was extremely successful, getting all 10,000 votes needed to be considered for the grand prize in just two weeks. A modified version of the set was released to the public last year and ended up shooting up to No. 1 on Amazon’s best-selling toy list on the first day it was available, and selling out its first printing very quickly. So that was fun.
In terms of LEGOs in the course, I sprinkled my own LEGO photos in with historic images of women who we were reading about and watching films about and listening to podcasts about. I found it was a great way to have fun with the subject, and students enjoyed figuring out which people the minifigs represented based on the physical characteristics of the LEGO pieces I selected. Interestingly, one of my students for her final project did something similar except with Japanese-style crochet dolls: She crafted dolls of and then made photo essays featuring several STEM women in MIT history, including Shirley Ann Jackson, Millie Dresselhaus, and Sheila Widnall. It was awesome! Finally, I kept my class in the loop as we approached launch day for my Women of NASA LEGO project, and most of the students attended a launch party I held at the LEGOLAND Discovery Center in nearby Somerville, which featured special guests Margaret Hamilton and Nancy Grace Roman, who are depicted in the set, and Bear Ride, the sister of Sally Ride, who is also in the set (but who passed away in 2012).
The students' grades were based on the following activities:
Offered periodically; topics vary.
Breakdown by Year
1/2 undergraduate; 1/2 graduate student
Breakdown by Major
Variety of majors
Typical Student Background
About half of the students took the class for credit, while the other half audited the course. There was strong attendance from both types of participants.
During an average week, students were expected to spend 12 hours on the course, roughly divided as follows:
- Met 1 time per week for 3 hours per session; 13 sessions total.
- Seminar sessions included group discussions, lecture, and multimedia viewing.
- Students participated in local fieldtrips.
Out of Class
Students completed readings and prepared reflective writing assignments outside of class. They also worked on midterm papers and final papers or projects.
Sobel, Dava. The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars. Penguin Books, 2017. ISBN: 9780143111344.