Purdue College of Liberal Arts logo THiNK Magazine logo

History professor aims to broaden perspectives in STEM fields


Fall 2018 | By David Ching. Photo by Eduard Harkonen.


Story's Main Image

Why was it not standard practice for automakers to use pregnant crash-test dummies in accident simulations?

Why do plumbers and electricians talk about inserting “male” connectors into “female” receptacles?

Why do old science buildings on college campuses frequently have a glaring shortage of women’s restrooms?

The narrow viewpoint that all too often characterized scientific work in decades past is slowly broadening as people with a wider array of life experiences enter the field. As that change occurs, associate professor of history Sharra Vostral said, the result is a superior brand of science.

Vostral’s “STEM and Gender” course examines the culture of science and technology, focusing on how the inclusion of additional viewpoints can accelerate innovation.

“This is really the kind of message of hope that I like to give at the end — that diverse ideas create better science,” Vostral said. “More people thinking and bringing different perspectives to a problem creates better solutions, and it seems like this is, to me, the ultimate hopefulness that the class can bring.”

Although Vostral is a faculty member in Purdue’s history department, in the past she has instructed in science and technology studies, as well as in gender and women’s studies. Those experiences inform her teaching in the “STEM and Gender” class, in which approximately two-thirds of the students are women studying science and engineering.

U.S. Department of Commerce statistics revealed that women held just 24 percent of all STEM jobs in 2015, which is why Vostral believes her course’s lessons can be especially valuable for her female students. Sometimes they contend with subtle messages that they do not belong in scientific fields, but Vostral reminds them that their presence is important.

“Some of it is about helping change their worldview a little bit to understand, ‘Wait, wait, wait, there are a lot of things happening within science that have been stacked against you.’ Just understanding that helps them to do better, to not internalize it so much,” Vostral said. “That’s really important, and I think it’s a wakeup call that helps them feel like, ‘OK, I can do this.’ ”

To drive home her point about the necessity of diverse thought, Vostral sends students to Purdue Archives and Special Collections to conduct class research and requires them to collaborate on design projects that employ gender-conscious thinking to improve upon preexisting products.

The objective is for students to learn to consider perspectives different from their own.

“If I can convey that, that makes them better scientists, and in the end, that’s what I’m interested in. I want them to be smarter,” Vostral said. “I want them to think about problems in a much deeper way and to do better science and engineering.”