Saturday, June 02, 2007

Mary Lyon and Science Education

Mary Lyon was born in 1797 in the Western Massachusetts town of Buckland. Thirsty for knowledge, she attended school year-round. Even after she became a teacher herself, she paid for extra instruction in a number of subjects, including the sciences.

As soon as her schools were finished, she would spend the money in obtaining instruction in some particular study, in which she thought herself deficient. Now she would go into the family of Rev. Edward Hitchcock, afterward president of Amherst College, and study natural science of him, meantime taking lessons, of his wife in drawing and painting. Now she would study penmanship, following the copy as closely as a child. Once when a teacher, in deference to her reputation, wrote the copy in Latin, she handed it back and asked him to write in English, lest when the books were examined, she might be thought wiser than she really was. Thus conscientious was the young school-teacher.

She was now twenty-four, and had laid up enough money to attend the school of Rev. Joseph Emerson, at Byfield. He was an unusual man in his gifts of teaching and broad views of life. He had been blest with a wife of splendid talents, and as Miss Lyon was wont to say, "Men judge of the whole sex by their own wives," so Mr. Emerson believed women could understand metaphysics and theology as well as men. He discussed science and religion with his pupils, and the result was a class of self-respecting, self-reliant, thinking women. (From The Lives of Girls Who Became Famous by Sarah Bolton (1914))
In 1834 she left her position as assistant principal at Ipswich Female Seminary to create an institution of higher education for women that would be on par with the existing men's colleges. In November 1837, after collecting funds from all over the United States, she founded Mt. Holyoke Seminary for women in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Science education was an important part of Mt. Holyoke curriculum, and students were required to take seven courses in science and mathematics to graduate. But Lyon didn't just innovate by teaching women the sciences, she created a new method of teaching chemistry that is still in use today:
In an effort to make her chemistry teaching the best possible, [Lyon] basically invented the lab course. Until then, most colleges taught chemistry only with lectures, but Lyon felt that if students were to learn how matter behaves, they should play with matter and carry out experiments themselves. So she made laboratory exercises and experiments the backbone of her chemistry course at Mount Holyoke. Around the same time, in Germany, a famous chemistry professor named Justus von Liebig was making waves in the academic world by using laboratory research for teaching graduate students. Since lab work was new even to graduate schools, Lyon was quite revolutionary in bringing it to undergraduate teaching. Her method caught on, and today almost every chemistry class in college or high school uses lab work of some sort. (Chemical Heritage Foundation "Her Lab in Your Life" profile of Mary Lyon)
Lyon was the principal of Mt. Holyoke for 12 years, dying in her campus apartment at the relatively young age of 52. She left an important legacy of education of women in the sciences. Over the 170 years since it's founding, many women who have studied at Mt. Holyoke have gone on to excel in science careers.

According to the Mt. Holyoke web site the college "has educated more women who went on to earn a Ph.D. degree in chemistry than any other college or university in the U.S." Many Mt. Holyoke graduates became pioneers in their fields:
Mt. Holyoke continues to encourage girls and women to study mathematics and science. Some of their resources include summer mathematics programs for high school girls and teachers, information on finding science internships, and the Expect the Best from a Girl web site. It remains one of the top liberal arts colleges in the United States.

Additional Information about Mary Lyon
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Virginia Lee said...

Peggy, this is wonderful. Both the student and teacher in me got all excited upon realizing just how great the content of this blog is.

Hooray! Hooray for Women in Science!

(PS In an alternate universe I just know I'm a geological engineer. Oh well. In this one I'm a humanities head who loves science.)

Peggy K said...

I've always figured the geosciences are for adventurous types: climbing through canyons, taking measurements on volcanos, studying the oceans. However, you can still have that kind of interest in the Earth even if your first love is the written word.