Celebrating STEM women’s unsung contributions

Phil YoungbloodBy Phil Youngblood

Women have long contributed to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. They just do not show up as frequently as men do in the books that account for STEM development.

In the last Logos, I shared the story of some brave young women in Aleppo, Syria, who are using computer technology to continue their college education online, despite the extreme difficulties of doing so in the middle of a war zone.

There are many “unsung” women whose stories need to be told. Some of these stories could be seen around campus during Women’s History Month. One display in Joyce Design & Technology Center was titled “Unsung Women in STEM.” We are leaving it up during part of April, so I invite you to view the biographies of 16 amazing women. Some have made more recent contributions and are likely better-known to us, though not necessarily to traditional-age students, whose cultural memories started in about 2000. Others who blazed the path for today’s women to follow, but who did so a half century or more ago, may be less well-known.

Many people know the Manhattan Project was a top-secret program of the U.S. government’s during World War II that led to development of the first nuclear weapons. Far fewer may have heard of the “Calutron Girls,” without whom the project might not have succeeded. The reason for this is that one critical activity which prevents other nations from creating nuclear weapons today is the enrichment of uranium to a degree that it can achieve a “chain reaction.” A group of women were chosen for the Manhattan Project to perform the enrichment process because they exhibited such care and precision that not even scientists from the University of California-Berkeley who developed the procedure were able to master it to the same degree. The irony was the women were also selected because they had no more than a secondary school education and did not know why they were doing what they were doing to maintain secrecy.

Not so the highly skilled team of mathematicians and scientists who worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in the 1950s, who also just happened to be women. Have you read the book, “Rise of the Rocket Girls,” yet? Highly recommended. It is the story of this group of women who worked as “computers,” a job that had existed for decades before the advent of the electronic computer in the 1960s, and one of the only jobs in STEM fields open to most women at the time.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory today is the agency that sponsors the spacecraft missions that visit the planets and other bodies in our solar system. Back then Americans were still learning how to control rockets. One of these women was Janez Lawson, a young African-American who had earned a chemical engineering degree could not find an engineering job. Lawson became the first woman of color to work in a technical job for JPL. Another was Sue Finley, who later worked on the Mars Rover and Pluto flyby missions, and continues to work for the JPL today after more than a half century, the longest-serving woman in NASA.

Still another group of highly skilled, all-female mathematicians, who also happened to be African-American, were hired by NASA as “computers” to calculate spacecraft trajectories by hand for Project Mercury, the program that first succeeded in putting Americans into space.

If you were able to watch the movie “Hidden Figures,” which I also highly recommend, for a number of reasons, if you have not gotten the chance yet, you learned the story of these amazing women. Although details of the movie are dramatized and dates conflated, many of the details are true, including [caution: plot disclosure] John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the earth, asking for Katherine Johnson by name to verify the trajectories that NASA’s electronic computer had calculated before he would fly on the mission.

In 2017, I am writing about the “global connections” aspect of technology and how individuals have used technology to overcome adversity. I invite your feedback, dialogue, and differing opinions.


E-mail Youngblood, head of the Computer Information Systems and Cybersecurity programs, at youngblo@uiwtx.edu

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