Spotlighting important (mini)figures in STEM: An interview with Maia Weinstock

By Sarah Hansen, OCW Educator Project Manager

Lego minifigure of scientist.

LEGO® figurine of Shirley Ann Jackson by Maia Weinstock. (Image courtesy of pixbymaia on flickr. License: BY-NC-SA.)

Women scientists and engineers have long played significant roles in shaping STEM disciplines and advancing technological innovation, yet many go unrecognized. (Case in point: How many women scientists can you name right now?) Maia Weinstock is committed to changing this. In the fall of 2017, she taught WGS.S10 History of Women in Science and Engineering, a course for MIT undergraduates that spotlighted the contributions of women in STEM and created space for uncovering how biases in academia and popular culture impact scientific achievements.

The course also had this: LEGO® minifigures depicting women scientists, created and photographed by Weinstock herself. (We know. History + LEGO Minifigures + Science = Where Can I Sign Up? Thanks, MIT, for being awesome and for sharing it all on MIT OpenCourseWare, for free.)

We interviewed Weinstock to learn about what inspired her to teach this course, how she helped students edit “the most popular encyclopedia in the world” to better include the achievements of women scientists, and of course, how she’s rocking the world of LEGO® minifigures with her depictions of scientists like chemical engineer Paula Hammond, and Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa. (Breaking news: Weinstein’s Women of NASA Lego® Prototype has just been added to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum!). You can read excerpts from our interview below. Whether you’re an educator wanting to spotlight the role of women in STEM, a LEGO®s fan—or both—we think you’ll enjoy listening in on the conversation.

OCW: The history of women in science and engineering is an important (and often neglected) topic. What inspired you to teach the course?

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.

Two women standing in an office. One woman is holding a LEGO minifigure.

Maia Weinstock (left) with Johnson Space Center director Ellen Ochoa and her LEGO minifigure. (Image by Maia pixbymaia on flickr. License: CC BY-NC-SA.).

OCW: You asked students to edit or add an article to Wikipedia about women in STEM. Tell us about your decision to develop this assignment.

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.

OCW: As you noted above, you’ve done a lot of creative work with LEGO minifigures. Tell us more about this work and the role of LEGO®s in the course.

Maia Weinstock: I started creating LEGO®s 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.

“I started creating LEGO®s in the likeness of scientists and engineers in early 2010 . . . 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.” — MAIA WEINSTOCK

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.

LEGO minifigure depicting Dr. Paula T. Hammond.

MIT Chemical Engineering professor, Dr. Paula T. Hammond, depicted as a Lego® figurine. Dr. Hammond’s work concerns the use of electrostatics to generate functional materials with highly controlled architecture. (Image by pixbymaya on flickr. License: CC BY-NC-SA.)

In terms of LEGO®s 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).

***

You can read the complete interview with Maia Weinstock on the Instructor Insights page of her OCW course.

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