People often think that science is about theories and equations and big ideas. The earth goes around the sun, gravity attracts with a force inversely proportional to the square of the distance, e equals mc squared. It’s chalk-on-blackboard stuff.
But most working scientists spend less time with theories on the blackboard, and more time trying to measure things that aren’t easy to measure. How do you build a machine that can detect subatomic particles? How do you find gravity waves? How do you measure how much insulin is in a sample of blood?
Rosalyn Sussman Yalow won a Nobel Prize for answering the last question — in the words of the Nobel Prize Committee, “for the development of radioimmunoassays of peptide hormones.” The answer she came up with sounds as much like witchcraft as science: Inject guinea pigs with cow insulin. Add radioactive iodine to an extract from their blood. Throw in a few more steps, measure the radiation of the final product with a gamma ray detector, perform some calculations, and voila: You can measure insulin in blood, even when it is as diluted as a sugar cube would be if it were thrown into Lake Erie.
No wonder the answer was prize-worthy.
There are no guinea pigs or radioactive iodine in the Rosalyn Yalow Makerspace at the Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck. But students are getting hands-on instruction in learning how to solve problems with 3D printers and laser cutters and microcontrollers and wearable circuits and soldering irons. All that equipment is in a room called the Makerspace.
“We’ve created a mindset of thought and wonder and exploration,” Gila Stein said proudly. Ms. Stein is the school’s co-director of STEAM education and innovation; STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics. With her co-director, Orly Nadler, Ms. Stein has created a new STEAM curriculum for the school, which begins requiring a STEAM technology and engineering course for all its ninth graders this year. Next year, 10th graders will be required to take a second year of STEAM.
The course, and the Makerspace room where it takes place, came about as the school started to reappraise its curriculum in light of the question: “Are we equipping our students with the necessary skills for this century?”
How is a STEAM course different than a regular high school class?
“In a typical class we teach skills,” Ms. Nadler said. “And then, if there’s a project, you utilize the skills you’ve already learned. We do the opposite. We say we’re going to create this” — it might be a 3D-printed drone or a wearable LED that lights up in the dark — “and you’re going to need to learn circuitry and coding to create it. We’ve captured their imagination, and then we’re guiding them with the skills needed to complete the project.”
It’s a different experience than read, learn, study, regurgitate on the test.
“No matter how successful you are academically in other classes, in STEAM it will take many iterations to get it right. Students learn it’s okay if it’s not right the first time,” she said. “We have mantras like ‘failing forward.’”
The course changes how the students learn in other classes. “They’re asking different kinds of questions in science classes,” Ms. Stein said. “They’re more open to thinking and exploring. The mindset of growth has carried over.”
The Makerspace was funded by a grant from a foundation that wants to remain anonymous — which meant that the naming was aspirational.
“We were looking for a woman who would be a role model for our students,” Ms. Stein said. Dr. Yalow fit the bill. She was the first American-born Jewish woman to get the Nobel Prize in medicine. “She was a trailblazer,” Ms. Stein said.
Then they discovered that Dr. Yalow’s son Benjamin was alive and well and living in Riverdale, N.Y. The school invited him to speak and he agreed. Last week, his energetic talk, which he clearly enjoyed delivering, was the highlight of the ceremony dedicating and inaugurating the Makerspace.
Like the students at Ma’ayanot, Rosalyn Yalow went to a girls’ high school — Walton, in the Bronx — and then to Hunter College, when it too was all women.
And in an indication of how different times were in 1941, when she graduated with an undergraduate physics degree, the most likely path to graduate school for her was to learn stenography so she could work at Columbia University as a secretary and take courses there on the side.
Before that happened, however, she was accepted into the graduate program at the University of Illinois. The spot had opened up because of the looming war; she was the first woman admitted to the program since 1917. “She got to tear up her steno books and study to be a physicist,” her son said.
At the University of Illinois, one of the two other Jewish students in the class immediately fell in love with her. It took time for her to reciprocate. She married Aaron Yalow two years later. He was the son of an Orthodox rabbi, and the couple kept a kosher home.
As a physicist, she was an expert in radioactivity. Radioisotopes had medical implications — “but physicians weren’t familiar with them,” Mr. Yalow said. Dr. Yalow joined a lab at a Veterans Administration hospital in the 1950s, where she continued to work until shortly before she died in 2011.
“Growing up, the lab was very much a second home for my sister and myself,” Mr. Yalow said. “We would often go in on weekends. There was a lab full of research animals — and no money to pay someone to feed the guinea pigs and rabbits and mice.” So Dr. Yalow did.