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Women in science

Posted: August 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

 

My younger daughter, The Lady, announced some time ago that she wants to be an inventor. I am not sure where she got the idea but she has been consistently coming up with inventions since then, some zany and some really practical. (If I told you what they were it would be copyright infringement. Sorry.) I’ve always encouraged both my girls to love science as well as the arts and humanities. We have books on biology, physics and general science all through the house and there’s a couple of science kits floating around the house, so it’s not completely out of the blue, but there aren’t really a lot of role models for her, especially in the Caribbean, and most of my friends are artists and writers, with the exception of her godmother, who is a petroleum engineer. That’s why I was so excited this week to hear from a friend of mine that a Trinidad-and-Tobago-born scientist was coming here for a visit.

The scientist is Camille Waldrop Alleyne, and she went to Mucurapo Girls’ RC, The Lady’s alma mater, and St Francois Girls’ College, the school for which The Lady passed in this year’s SEA. The bio sent to me by NIHERST, the organisation hosting her visit, is tremendously exciting:

“For the past 15 years, Camille Wardrop Alleyne has been dedicated to the advancement of aerospace and space technology. She is currently Assistant Program Scientist for the International Space Station (ISS), based at the NASA–Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, with responsibility for communicating the ISS’ scientific research and education programmes to stakeholders and the public.”

Wow! I couldn’t ask for a more tailor-made role model for The Lady.

A little background: because her elder sister Miss Thing and I both went to Bishop Anstey High School, The Lady was disappointed to have passed for St Francois. I didn’t share her feeling; I was over the moon. St Francois, a government secondary school, is a very sound educational institution with a brilliant track record and I’ve heard nothing but good things about them for the past few years. I hope that, as a business magnet school, they will understand The Lady’s forceful temperament and know how best to shape that bold spirit so that she is a leader and unafraid of her power while still compassionate and human. I think this is where she is meant to be and I intend to do everything I can to support her and her school as long as she needs me to. And that includes bigging up a St Francois alum!

While The Lady won’t be at the lecture because she’s visiting family abroad on a well-deserved holiday, I hope to go and make copious notes. If she wants to be a scientist, I have her back.

Here’s the flyer for Camille Waldrop Alleyne’s lecture. Here’s hoping other little girls and boys from T&T can get inspiration and guidance from her too.


The babies and the (electronic) bathwater

Posted: June 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Image from the Commonwealth Secretariat web site

 

Of all the annoying things I read in today’s Trinidad Express (and there were several stories and ads that caused me ire, can I just say?), the most irritating was a call for the dismantling of the Government initiative to give laptop computers to all incoming secondary school students. Today’s story followed up on one written earlier this month detailing problems faced in implementing the initiative. In the first story, students said the computers were not being used in classrooms and were, in fact, being used to play games and record fights–and surf Facebook, a site that had supposedly been blocked on all the Government-issued laptops. Teachers said they hadn’t been properly trained and there was a big gap between the plan and its implementation.

The follow-up in today’s Express, the story that got me so mad, extensively quoted a parent identified as “Mrs Leacock”, whose views, presumably, represented the voice of parents. “The reality is that 12- and 13-year-olds are not responsible, nor prudent enough in their thinking to take care of, far less, use the laptop and harness its power to influence and access both good and bad at this tender age. We are being unfair in our expectations, and at the same time curtailing their opportunity to learn, by giving them another technological toy to entertain themselves with, and expecting better results in the long run,” she’s quoted as saying.

“A peep into any household whose child has their laptop at home would reveal the parent’s mantra of ‘turn that thing off’ with increased frequency, because now, in addition the Xbox, iPod, cellphone and TV to compete for our time and attention, our Form One children can now be mobile and walk into his bedroom/ bathroom and spend hours on the Internet or playing games, simply because they can, as it is their laptop.

“So in addition to more unsupervised use of this communication technology, we are fostering an increase in obesity. If before we had a hard time getting our children outside to play, this makes it all the more difficult, and the reality is that they have these laptops for a few years, so these bad habits are not going to change anytime soon.”

Well, Mrs Leacock, I beg to differ.

There might be great reasons to take those laptops away from the kids, but there are even better reasons to let them keep them. Here are some:

• Children don’t learn responsibility unless they’re given it. In other words, if they have nothing of value, how do they learn that they must take care of the things they have? I struggle with this on a daily basis with my 11-year-old (soon to be getting a laptop herself, once she passes her SEA. We’ll know by next week, God willing). Do I worry that she’ll mash up the laptop she gets, or lose it? Sorta. But I also recognise that the only way for her to learn to take care of things that are important is for her to TAKE CARE OF THINGS THAT ARE IMPORTANT. Parents ought to be teaching their children responsibility from small–doing chores, taking care of pets, taking responsibility for their books and toys and so on. Getting a $5,000 piece of fragile technology shouldn’t be the first time they have responsibility. But it is an excellent opportunity to teach them consequences. Hold them personally responsible for the condition of the laptops and enforce consequences for damage or misuse. Let’s see how many keys go missing then.

• Internet access isn’t a privilege anymore. It’s a necessity. I lived in the library when I was a student. Now, as a writer, I live online. Every time I write one of these useless blog posts, I spend time researching what I write, or finding pictures to illustrate the posts or videos to emphasise my points. Young people in schools have to do much the same thing. Education is increasingly project-centred, an approach that puts the onus on the child to find and present information. They could do this in libraries like I did thirty years ago, but why should they? Any teacher would tell you that they expect projects to be typed and neatly laid out–usually on a computer. (Can I get an “amen” from all the parents who ordinarily have to go to their offices to type and print projects for their kids?) To force children to depend on Internet access at schools or public libraries would be putting them at a disadvantage. Who would suffer most? The kids whose families already have computers and Internet access at home? Doubt it.

• Technology is part and parcel of the modern world. Giving students computers at an early stage in their development makes them more comfortable and familiar with the tools they will have to use anyway. It’s true not everybody’s going to be a writer or a scientist. But have you been to a mechanic lately? Even they use computers for their office management and diagnostics. Face it: computers are not going away and we need them more each day. Give a head start to children who otherwise would not be able to afford them.

• Computer-assisted learning can help certain kinds of learners. Chalk and talk doesn’t reach everybody. By nature computers are multi-media and therefore could be a great tool in teaching those who are more kinetic or visual learners. For more on the benefits of computers in classrooms, read this.

• Social networking is not the devil. Well, maybe this is a shaky point. I know they can be addictive, but sites such as Tumblr and Facebook are one of the ways the adult world now communicates. I once read a comment from someone who said that Facebook is today what a cell phone was ten years ago. Hands up if you have a cell phone now. I’m sure even Mrs Leacock has one. The idea is that they are a weapon in our communications arsenal and they can be useful. Teachers can and do use Facebook to post assignments and communicate with students. It doesn’t have to be a terrible thing.

• Who’s in charge of our children’s habits and lifestyle? Parents, or the computers? Mrs Leacock’s argument is a cop out. Until that child turns 18 he or she is your responsibility. Go back to my very first point. What did we say about taking care of the things that are important to you? Get the child off the computer. It’s your right and your job.

• As for the finding in the first story that teachers hadn’t been properly trained, this is eminently fixable. Train the teachers. When I teach I use my computers to teach (sometimes I use PowerPoint presentations, I find resources online for students, I show videos, I give quizzes, I make them do blogs). I also use my computer to communicate with students and do things like lesson plans. You don’t need a computer to teach. But it is a very useful tool. Show the teachers that and they might find it less onerous to be trained in using computers.

 

I’m not trying to oversimplify the problems inherent in giving students computers for use in schools. They are many and large. But we can and should solve them. Our children, no less than any others, deserve to reap the benefits of progress.

*Image from: http://www.thecommonwealth.org/news/190663/163077/235429/280311colcsmicro.htm


Term II Seminar for The Allen Prize

Posted: April 10th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: The Allen Prize | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

I’m tired but happy today because The Allen Prize for Young Writers’ Term II Seminar was held yesterday and it was a success. Tired=lots of planning work and running around, then hosting and stage managing yesterday with the help of lots of people–my brother Dennis, my daughters, Rhoda, Brian. Happy because (although our preregistration drive netted us more than 50 students the actual turnout was, once again, lower than expected) we had a small but keen audience.

Part of the audience.

The speakers were marvelous. Nicholas Laughlin talked about the possibilities of creative non-fiction.

Nicholas Laughlin at The Allen Prize Term II Seminar 2011

Monique Roffey spoke about her life as a writer, starting as a wall-scrawling toddler, up to her short listing for the Orange Prize in 2011.

Monique Roffey at The Allen Prize Term II Seminar 2011

And Muhammad Muwakil performed his spoken word magic before giving a talk on writing.

Muhammad Muwakil at The Allen Prize Term II Seminar 2011

Gillian Moor was our guest performer.

Gillian Moor at The Allen Prize Term II Seminar 2011

It was an exciting morning. Now on to the Awards Ceremony in May, and the next seminar–in Tobago!–in June.


Beyond the SEA

Posted: March 30th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

My younger daughter just sat the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA). The exam, which used to be called the Common Entrance, is the be all and end all of every Trinidadian and Tobagonian child’s primary school career. All seven years of primary school lead up to SEA; it determines what secondary school you’ll attend, and by default, if you succeed in school or not.

That’s a pretty harsh and extreme position, you might say. Well, it’s not. While anybody can succeed in life given the right tools and encouragement, the average secondary school child in this country isn’t given either. Most go through the system like a dose of salts, as one aspiring education minister unfortunately said on the hustings during the last election. This year about 17,000 students sat the exam, which starts at 9 am and ends at 12.30 pm and covers English grammar, creative writing and mathematics. Of those thousands, about two or three thousand will end up in schools their parents consider “good”–either the denominational schools that by and large top the secondary school scholarship lists every year, or a well regarded government school, of which there are a handful. Each of these schools takes in about 120-150 students, tops. What happens to the rest of students?

The government some years ago instituted a rule that no child would fail the SEA outright. Instead, the lowest scoring pupils who sat the exam would either return to primary school for another–and another, and another, if necessary–chance to sit it. Those who aged out would go on to government secondary schools with remedial curricula. Those who sat and passed with better scores would go to mainstream or tech/voc government schools. The government also paid for places for students in private secondary schools. All children now go to secondary school. But it remains an unfortunate truth that the majority of those innocents who sat SEA Tuesday will not have the secondary schooling they deserve.

Overcrowded classes, understaffed schools, a curriculum that does not seem to meet their needs, and lack of parental input conspire to leave many of our youths still at sea when they go to secondary school.

As for my child, The Lady, I hope she passes for my alma mater, Bishop Anstey High School. If she doesn’t, I will send her to whatever school she passes for, support, guide and love her and hope for the best. Your schooling is not the sum of your education.

But maybe I get ahead of myself. The results don’t come out for another three months, so she has a nice break from academia–she had lessons before and after school, Saturdays and all through the holidays. She gets a break from hours of homework every single night and the horrible pressure of knowing this was the biggest exam she has ever had to do in her nearly 11 years. And I get to sleep late again. Until she starts Form One, anyway.


Because I want to, because I can

Posted: March 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , | 8 Comments »

I had a tempestuous relationship with my mother for most of my life, possibly because I didn’t understand anything but my own needs and desires and had no patience with anyone else’s, but when that was over we were great friends up until she got senile dementia. I lost her in 2004. I remember her as a flirt, a practical woman who knew how to cook and how to beat children, a voracious reader, a loving mother who did the best she could. She always said she preferred boys to books and that is how she came out with three A’s and six O’s (one son named Abraham, a son and daughter named Allen, and six children named Ollivierre); she had no passes and no qualifications of any kind but managed to find ways to feed and clothe us all, even if it meant leaving some of us for her own mother to mind.

Barbara Jenkins has written a wonderful story about her own mother’s struggles to make ends meet and what she learned from her mother; I don’t mean to repeat that in this post. The reason I’m writing this is because Miss Thing, my eldest, said to me today that she is slightly afraid that once she turns 18 in two months I will stop doing all the things I do for her. Miss Thing is spoiled, to some extent. I drive her around, buy her the things she needs and some of the things she wants, listen to her, talk to her, do her hair, give her tips on makeup and clothes, and generally make myself available to her as much as she needs (even if it’s not necessarily as much as she wants all the time). Parenting like I do it can be exhausting, physically and emotionally, and I think she now recognises that. Turning 18 might mean, she thought, that I wouldn’t have to do any of those things for her anymore.

Well, the truth is that I’m not legally obliged to do most of those things for her even now. I do them because I want to, and because I can. My own mother stopped taking me shopping when I was barely a teen; I was given money and sent on my way to do what I wanted or had to with it. Our contentious relationship meant we were not confidants–far from it. My mother was the last person I would talk to about anything, small or large. All my big decisions–what to study, whether to marry, what to do with my life–I made on my own or with the input of my siblings, boyfriend or friends. In fact, my mother actively resisted being drawn into my life: when I was a teen and downed a bottle of Tylenol in a melodramatic attempt to end it all, it was my boyfriend who held my hand while I was wracked with stomach pains and despair. My mother refused to take me to the hospital and we never discussed it again.

While I’m not blind to her faults, neither am I consumed with bitterness over my childhood with her. She did the best she could with the resources she had and so do I; but what I do for Miss Thing and her sister The Lady is a direct consequence of the childhood I had. For every taxi I had to take alone at any hour of the day or night, I drive the girls to their destinations and pick them back up or arrange for them to be picked up. For every pair of shoes or panties I had to pick out myself, I go with them to buy theirs. For each decision I had to puzzle through on my own, I give them the tools and advice to make the best choices they can. For each dodgy character I befriended and *shudder* dated, I vet their choices of friends in subtle and sometimes obvious ways. I want them to be independent and powerful women, but I don’t think they need to learn those skills the hard way, as I did.

I loved my mother and cherish her memory, but I am not my mother. I hope my daughters one day look back at their childhood and say, “She did the best she could with the resources she had and she did a damn good job.”


An experiment in -isms

Posted: February 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

A young woman I know did an interesting experiment using her Facebook page. She posted the following status:

“I dislike black people with a passion. Call me ignorant, call me w/e, i real doh care.. I see being black as horribly wrong. :)”

(Translation for those over 35 or those who don’t speak Young Adult Trini English: “I dislike black people with a passion. Call me ignorant, call me whatever, I really don’t care. I see being black as horribly wrong.”)

There was a firestorm of comments following the post, most of them expressing shock and disbelief at the statement by the teen, who is herself half black and living in Trinidad, a country where almost 40 percent of the population is black. The comments ranged from: “How can u dislike someone based solely on their skin colour? I think u need to check urself” to “Being black is a silly thing to hate someone for; if you hate lazy people (or ignorant ppl) for example, there’s some feasibility there cuz it’s their fault their lazy…contrarily, complexion is just a characteristic like gender or what kind of food you like..hardly an excuse for prejudice..”

Fifty-eight comments later, she wrote in another status:

“Dear people freaking out about my status. Thanks for helping with my experiment. I would have loved to have kept this up but (name of her friend) said to stop. I was simply curious after a friend put up a similar status: ‘I dislike homosexual people with a passion. Call me ignorant, call me w/e, i real doh care.. I see being gay as horribly wrong.’.Tons of LIKES. zero comments.”

And they say young people have no direction? Bravo to this young woman for standing up for what she believes in; hopefully those who (unwittingly) participated in the experiment learned something about prejudice and oppression.


Being there

Posted: November 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Friday last week saw me on the edge of my seat at The Lady’s school Spelling Bee finals. The school has just started this school-wide competition and they hope to make it an annual event. The inaugural event was short and decisive; The Lady took the Std 5 championship after stumbling over “magnanimous” in her second round (but all the competitors also missed their words so the round was discounted).

I was overwhelmingly proud of her, not just for winning, but for actually learning over 300 spelling words in preparation for the tournament. (The last round in the finals, however, included words not on the list.) She stuck to it and was rewarded with the win.

Most of the girls who took part in the finals did so under the gaze of at least one parent or guardian, except for one girl who had no parent there to cheer her on. I wonder if that made a difference to her?

In my childhood my parents rarely, if ever, attended my school events. I might come home and announce I had won something, or taken part in something else, and they would be happy in an abstracted kind of way. Coming to those things was not a priority for them.

I wonder if it made a difference to me? I can’t remember. But I know The Lady wanted me there at her Spelling Bee and I made sure to be there on time as she requested. I sat up in front and beamed loving attention to her all through the contest. I think it made a difference, my being there.