Friday, July 25, 2014

Science Communication Team Building - with Paint. Seriously?

How do you tell a male or female scorpion?

The idea of having to sing in public or play an instrument made my stomach flip. I usually feel that sensation only when landing in the turbulence that seems to always surround the Dallas/Forth Worth airport. However, here I was, feet planted firmly on the Arizona sand, and that sick almost pukey sensation wouldn't go away. I didn't know anyone - how could I possibly say anything?

Along with 35 or so others, scientists and engineers, a philosopher, someone from theatre and several artists, I was newly arrived at the C.O.D. Ranch for  Sonoran SciComm. We were here to work on communication and team building and we had been warned (promised) that we'd be pushed outside our comfort zones. We all wanted to be there, some of us (ahem) having almost fallen all over ourselves at the opportunity. I think it safe to say everyone had a passion for the environment and was working one way or another for sustainability.

But at that moment I thought I might be ill. Try as I might I couldn't bring myself to choose the Music activity. The mere thought that I might suffer a panic attack in front of dozens of people I had never met before was intolerable. Ever since the summer after my Freshman year, when I had an ill fated on-stage encounter with Cole Porter's Anything Goes while working at a Lake George NY resort, I have preferred my singing take place at 75 mph with the windows rolled up. They said they were letting me go because I couldn't make hospital corners. True, I wasn't cut out to be a chambermaid, singing or otherwise.

So, 30 odd years later, back at SciComm, I opted for the Painting. A nice, reasonably solitary activity with which to get my feet under me. So I thought. A dozen of us stood ready to wield our instruments against the canvas: Let us at it!

Then they told us to give our tightly gripped (favorite) painting tool to our neighbor. Bummer. They teamed us up and let us loose with the acrylics. My new friend Liz and I hit it off immediately; she a marine biologist by training and me a fan of all things small and wiggly in the water. We happily created waves and little tadpoles and oceanic abstractions together.We negotiated each other's styles, learning about one another as we had a running conversation about our emerging masterpiece.  Perfect.

Until they told us to pause, move to the right and continue painting on someone else's canvas. But, but... ok, don't get attached to material things. I tried not to look (too often) at what was happening to our abandoned Work of Art. Instead, Liz and I discussed what to do with the canvas left to us (no doubt with an equal level of regret) by another team. We started off tentatively, trying not to change their vision. Whatever it was. Tippy toeing around the edges. Wider ranging discussions developed between the two of us as we not only figured out what to apply where (which by this point had started to include some artifacts stuck to the canvas), but tried to psych out what the whole exercise was really about.

As a result, we weren't particularly surprised when we were told to change canvases again. And then again. Eventually  it was IMPOSSIBLE not to "mess up" prior work. There simply wasn't that much untouched canvas on these easels. Our original work was by now unrecognizable. However, Liz and I had decided we weren't messing it up, they weren't messing it up, but that we were contributing to a group project.

It was only 10am. My attention span was starting to wander. This activity was supposed to continue until noon. I was feeling like I was done. DONE. I think Liz was having similar thoughts. I said something to one of our activity organizers. His polite but firm response was "You must continue!". It wasn't an order; in fact we had been explicitly told the evening before that nothing was mandatory and we didn't have to do anything we didn't want to, so no one would have said a word had I taken a break - and never come back.

I sucked it up. I had a little conversation with myself "I'm not going to sulk. I'm not going to slide out of the room". "As much as I want to go off somewhere and stare meditatively at a cactus, I'm not going to do so. That would mean abandoning the group" .

Yet I was feeling a tad irritable. My cognitive state told me one thing but my affective state was not cooperating. Liz had wandered off somewhere, also feeling a need for change and some time apart. It turned out she was doing something really nifty with the paint out on the porch, a la Andy Warhol, to a series of magazine pictures of stuffy old men .

For myself, I reasoned that no one had said we had to paint on the canvas, so I proceeded to pour long trails of blood and guts black and red down the side of a supply box. It was very satisfying. And you know,  after a while it started to look kinda nifty. Not long afterwards I was back with Liz, sharing the box desecration together and watching her deface the stuffy old men.

Things went on from there. We covered the box, and still an hour remained. So we picked up the paint bottles, threw aside the tools and proceeded to sling great blobs of drooling oozing highly satisfying paint all over the canvases. Other people joined in and soon many of us were smearing, swiping, pouring, and slithering paint all over the place. Attachments were Bye Bye. Interpersonal shyness was a thing of the past. Conversations were as fluid as the running paint.

In hindsight, I think that was the point. After three and a half hours, we had gone from being self conscious, protective of "our" art and ways of doing things, carefully negotiating perceptions of other people's preferences, to happily smearing paint every which way and learning to at the very least appreciate what each other was doing no matter what it looked like or how it got there.

The whole weekend was like that. In case we'd thought we were "done" after the morning's Painting, we were wrong. I never went within range of the musical group, but I did get a chance to scream at the top of my lungs during the Improv Session which was most cathartic.

So began Sonoron SciComm. So continued Sonoran SciComm. So... no, it isn't over. This wasn't just a solo weekend event but a community building activity among a bunch of people who might very well, perhaps now more than before, work together effectively on some very serious and important (and no doubt fun) science.

I'm not ready to belt out Stevie Nicks in public, but perhaps some day. Maybe. With a good team.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Summer: the Good, the Bad, and the Not Quite Sure

Summer can be an odd time. I had been been thinking I would write a new post when something interesting came along. I realized today that my understanding of interesting was skewed. There have been a lot of very very interesting things happening. Lots of events worth pondering and taking action on. Good or bad, it's all interesting and more importantly, we are immersed in opportunities to drive change.

The Bad: The tech world has been awash in one media report after another revealing poor diversity numbers and overt and subtle (yet highly damaging) acts of sexism and discrimination. It seems that at least once a day something comes across a major media outlet about the latest painful situation. The vitriolic responses that fill the Comment sections accompanying these articles are unbelievable. The seemingly ceaseless flood of stories and reaction has been painful evidence that something is structurally very very wrong.

All this makes me, along with many other people, sick. And yeah, like a lot of women in tech, I can relate personally to some of these stories. Yet, in another way I'm relieved (?) when I see the barrage of headlines. Part of me thinks "it's about time this stuff came out into the mainstream media" and therefore the more I read, the more I think that perhaps now, it will be harder for some people to pretend discrimination and harassment don't happen, are isolated incidents, somehow the fault of the woman involved, "not my problem", exaggerated etc. So maybe the media reports are good?


The Good For Sure: On the other hand, the surge in media reports surrounding girls getting involved in tech, via coding, conferences, meetups, and hackathons is wonderful. The widespread positive attention being given to these initiatives is long overdue. Isolated events for girls and women in tech have been around for a long time. Not only are there a lot more of them now, but people beyond the usual suspects are jumping on board. We need that because we need to reach a critical mass in order to achieve cultural shift.

I'd like to see this enthusiasm for encouraging women to learn computer science and consider careers in computing result in more long term sustained efforts. For example, as I've mentioned in the past, what happens after the tech camp? the hackathon? the intro online coding class? the celebration? We need to morph that Hour of Code into a Week, Season, Year of Code - and beyond.


More Good: Earlier this month I was at Bryn Mawr College* in the capacity of External Evaluator on an NSF funded project that is introducing introductory computer science through the use of digital art. A group of high school and college teachers, men and women, were learning how to use Processing; they discussed pedagogical and technological issues surrounding teaching with this Java based language. As with other Processing workshops I have observed, the level of enthusiasm was unusually high - people routinely tried to work through breaks and dawdled at their computers when it was lunch time. Collegiality and mutual support were running high.

Really Good (and oodles of fun): During a workshop break I intentionally "got lost" in one of the oldest buildings on the Bryn Mawr campus, stumbling around dark, stone walled basement corridors lit only by my cell phone. Many of these buildings are architecturally inspired by English medieval castles, complete with gargoyles of owls reading books. At one point, I popped out into daylight in a Cloister containing  personal and often emotionally worded plaques dedicated to deceased alumnae. Late 19th Century and early 20th Century Philadelphia was clearly teeming with Bryn Mawr women breaking barriers in law, the sciences, politics. Walking around reading these weathered and stained narratives,which were not at all like the usual "in memory of" blurbs, I was reminded yet again of the power and potential of safe, supportive environments where women and girls can come into their own.


The Future is Now: This weekend I'm attending a retreat that centers on team building and communication among a group of scientists, engineers and artists working on sustainability issues. Women and men who care about building bridges among people and disciplines. Out in the desert, far away from the usual technology. Other than 5am yoga, I'm not really sure what I'm in for but it sounds like an opportunity for doing good.

Summer is indeed a time for reflection and taking action.

*Bryn Mawr College is a women's college founded in 1885.