In the United States, educators often celebrate Black History Month in February, and Women’s History in March, but the importance of celebrating contributions to computer science year-round cannot be overstated. Our students know the names Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, but what about Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, Margaret Hamilton, Katherine Johnson, Mae Jemison, Evelyn Boyd Granville, Clarence Ellis, or Mark Dean? Pop culture has introduced more of these “Hidden Figures” in Hollywood, but as educators, it’s our job to ensure these pioneers are no longer hidden to our students.
Computer Science is first and foremost a bastion of ideas. There is truly no limit to what problems can be solved by programmers, so we need a diverse field of scientists to tackle them. Unfortunately, too many of our students do not see themselves reflected in STEM fields. Representation matters. “You can’t be what you can’t see” has become the battle cry for those vested in increasing diversity in STEM.
There are many large-scale efforts to increase exposure and participation in CS, such as Girls Who Code, Black Boys Code, and Black Girls Code. If your school or organization can get involved with these groups, go for it! But if you’re only ready for small steps right now, turning to literature is a great first step.
Every classroom, regardless of the age of your students or the demographics of your school, should include biographies about the many faces of STEM. I currently teach middle school computer science, but I still have a reading corner full of STEM-related books. Many of them are picture books, which may seem too juvenile for teenagers, but hear me out. Often, I’ll see a student who finishes early walk over there and pick up a book they can read in just a few minutes. It gives them just enough information to spark interest for further research on their own. When they sit down and start Googling, I’ll join them and start a discussion, and recommend further reading if they’re interested.
Sometimes I even start class with “story time” as an attention-grabbing technique. My teens are on the precipice of adulthood, some of them even have adult responsibilities, and they appreciate being transported back to childhood, even for a few minutes. I start a lesson on debugging with a read aloud of “Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code,” and I always enjoy seeing the students’ looks of surprise when they realize there was an actual bug in the computer. I show them pictures of the actual log book with the moth and tell them about seeing it in the Smithsonian during my eighth grade trip to Washington, D.C.
If you can collaborate with history teachers in your school, there are many great stories from the past that could easily be integrated into their lessons. During a math lesson on scientific notation, I incorporated a lesson on calculations in space travel. I read excerpts about the many “Hidden Figures” of the Space Race and shared clips from the movie. That night, I got an email from a very surprised parent whose daughter had asked her to buy the book. She didn’t know what the book was, but was pleasantly surprised her eighth grader was not only coming home and talking about something she learned at school, but wanted to extend her learning on her own. I brought the student my copy of the book the next day to borrow until she got her own and told her I was proud of her for wanting to learn more about these women. She shrugged and said, “Well I’ve never had a teacher teach me about black women doing math. It’s interesting.”
No one is saying you shouldn’t have books about the Steves and Bills and Marks of the world. I have all of them too, but my bookshelves mirror the demographics of my school. If your school isn’t as diverse, I’d argue it’s maybe even more important that you introduce students to diverse scientists, because these are the people they will work side-by-side with.
My last plea is to celebrate the MANY facets of Black and Women’s History every day. When we delegate a single month to a group, it implies their history isn’t OUR history. If we limit the black narrative to slavery, or their heroes to athletes and musicians, it limits our kids’ imaginations to that single narrative.
STEM Trailblazer Bios series
- NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson
- Super Soaker Inventor Lonnie Johnson
- Programming Pioneer Ada Lovelace
- Space Engineer and Scientist Margaret Hamilton
- Environmentalist Rachel Carson
- Astronaut Ellen Ochoa
- Computer Scientist Jean Bartik
- Environmental Activist Wangari Maathai
- NASA Astronomer Nancy Grace Roman
- Google Cybersecurity Expert Parisa Tabriz
- Mathematician and Computer Scientist Grace Hopper
- Aerospace Engineer Aprille Ericsson
- Computer Engineer Ruchi Sanghvi
- Mars Science Lab Engineer Diana Trujillo
- Genetics Expert Joanna L. Kelley
- Astrophysicist and Space Advocate Neil Degrasse Tyson
- Alternate Reality Game Designer Jane McGonigal
- Flickr Cofounder and Web Community Creator Caterina Fake
- Astronaut and Physicist Sally Ride
- Urban Biologist Danielle Lee
You Should Meet series