March is a great time to celebrate women’s history and women in STEM.
I talked about Women’s History Month with Pamela Thoma and Jan Dasgupta of Washington State University. Thoma leads the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies program. Dasgupta is the director of the Data Analytics program.
“The folks represented in different history and heritage months have always been important to the history of the United States—even before it was the United States,” Thoma said. “They push us to achieve its ideals.”
Those ideals include things like fairness.
Dasgupta is concerned about fairness in data science. Lots of decisions are made using data rules—called algorithms.
“If the people who are writing these algorithms are a very small, non-diverse group of people, it’s not a very good thing,” Dasgupta said. “We don’t like legislation without representation.”
That means people affected by rules should have a say in those rules.
Dasgupta thinks teaching kids about data science is a first step toward fairer data science. She said some people think data science is for math geniuses. But that’s not true. It starts with playing games and figuring out how you already use data to make good decisions. Being able to tell a story with data is just as important as the math.
Have you ever played Uno? Sometimes you have two or three cards you could play. Do you just randomly lay one down? Or do you look at your options and think about the best choice for the game? You’re using data to decide.
Uno is one of the games Dasgupta uses to introduce data science. She hosts events for families who don’t have fair access to resources. She serves amazing food and guides people to think about games and activities in a new way. She pairs interested families with a data mentor.
The idea is that teaching kids about data science and helping them navigate the path to a data science career will bring lots of different people to data science. That would help make data-driven decisions fairer.
Dasgupta told me data science is a way to make a difference in the world. That’s what she did by seeing a problem and doing something about it.
I hope you enjoy these quick bios of historical women in STEM who also changed the world—and activities to explore their fields.
Data Science & Math
We couldn’t have gone to the moon without Katherine Johnson. She calculated the path to get there. Now she works on projects to connect kids with STEM.
Do you think “nurse” when you read the name Florence Nightingale? She was also a data scientist. She figured out that lots of soldiers were dying from preventable diseases. She made a graphic called a rose diagram to help people understand the data.
Mollie Orshansky used math to understand poverty. Her guidelines are still used today to make policies that help people.
- Learn about clustering with Kids Explain Data Science
- Work with candy data or find the perfect dog with Tableau
- Learn to count in base 5 or use base 20 for Maya Math
One of the most notable computer programmers was Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. She wrote computer languages that use English instead of math code. That way more people could use computers to solve problems.
The first computer programmer was Ada Lovelace. She believed computers could do more than just solve math problems. She would be blown away by the internet!
The first programmable, all-electric computer—called ENIAC—was worked on by a group of six women. They didn’t get much credit back then, but their names were Betty Snyder, Kathleen McNulty, Jean Jennings Bartik, Ruth Licherman, Frances Bilas and Marlyn Wescoff.
- Learn to code and share your projects with Scratch
- Take free computer science and coding lessons at Code.org
Environment & Biology
One of the first scientists to inspire people to care for the environment was Rachel Carson. Her book Silent Spring showed that using too many pesticides hurts the earth.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas also cared about the environment—especially the Florida Everglades. She was a writer who fought for conservation, women’s rights and racial equality.
It’s hard to hear the word “chimpanzee” without thinking of Jane Goodall. When she began studying primates, women weren’t accepted in the field—but Goodall’s work changed that. She’s the only human ever accepted into chimp society. She lived in a troop of chimps for nearly two years.
- Learn more about Jane Goodall with SciShow or National Geographic Kids—or join her youth movement Roots and Shoots
- Be a Planet Protector with the Environmental Protection Agency
- Reuse trash to make cool crafts with Penn State Extension
- Join Kids vs Plastic with National Geographic Kids
Jump! Jump around! Barbara McClintock is best known for discovering that some genes can “jump” or move around in chromosomes.
You might know the names of the guys credited with discovering the shape of DNA—but it was actually Rosalind Franklin who figured out the double helix. She didn’t get any credit for this work while she was alive.
The first coronavirus was identified by June Almeida. She was a famous virus scientist.
- Make a DNA model with the American Museum of Natural History
- Make an animal cell cookie with The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis
- Learn about the Covid-19 Vaccine from Lisa Cooper and Jennifer Nuzzo
- If you play Minecraft, try this Microbiome Map from the American Museum of Natural History
It used to be difficult to take care of clothes. Then chemists like Ruth Rogan Benerito figured out how to make wrinkle-free, stain-free cotton. She also worked out a way to turn seeds into something doctors could feed patients through an IV to save lives.
Mary Engle Pennington was a chemist who changed how food was processed, stored and shipped. She’s the reason we have safety standards for milk and other things that go in the refrigerator.
Chemist Virginia H. Holsinger advanced public health around the world. She invented nutritious drinks that wouldn’t spoil. That’s useful for food donation programs. She also developed cereals to help people suffering from famine and war.
Tuberculosis is a serious disease that affects people’s lungs. Florence Seibert invented a test to detect the virus and keep people safe.
- Make rock candy from a supersaturated solution with the American Museum of Natural History
- Check out these chemistry resources from the American Chemical Society
- Learn more about what happens without refrigeration with NASA
Engineering & Mathematics
Before computers became the norm, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden worked as “human computers.” They did complex math for NASA. Vaughan led the group. Johnson calculated the trajectory for the moon landing. She also wrote the first NASA report with a woman named as author. Jackson became the first Black woman engineer at NASA. Their story is told in the book and movie “Hidden Figures.”
Edith Clarke was also a “human computer.” She became the first woman electrical engineer in the United States.
- Engineer with PBS Design Squad
- Learn about engineering with the National Academy of Engineering’s Engineer Girl
- Listen to Illustrator Laura Freeman read Hidden Figures
Sally Ride was the first American woman to go to space. After she retired from NASA, she spent the rest of her life connecting students with STEM.
In the 1960s, a group of women trained to become astronauts. They were called the Mercury 13. They didn’t get to go to space, but they paved the way for the first women who did—like Sally Ride, Mae Jemison and Ellen Ochoa.
The first professional woman astronomer in the US was Maria Mitchell. She discovered a comet and figured out its orbit.
- Build the Big Dipper to see how it looks from space with the American Museum of Natural History
- Check out Planetary Society’s Space for Kids
- Learn about Women’s History Month from National Geographic for Kids and PBS Kids
- Listen to the STEM Women in KidLit podcast with Buzzsprout
- Enjoy this A is for Awesome read-aloud from Miami Children’s Museum
- Go to PBS SciGirls for the videos— and stay for the games
- Women Who Explored Space and Women Who Loved Nature book lists from The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis
- 60 Children’s Books to Inspire Science-Loving Mighty Girls and 30 New Children’s Books About Girls and Women in Science from A Mighty Girl
- 15 Children’s Books to Celebrate Women’s History Month from PBS