Want to Break Stereotypes in STEM and Computing? Take a Look at Computer...

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Want to Break Stereotypes in STEM and Computing? Take a Look at Computer History

By Sheena Vaidyanathan (Columnist)     Apr 6, 2017

Want to Break Stereotypes in STEM and Computing? Take a Look at Computer History

The history of computers is not just an intriguing account of amazing innovations. More importantly, it is the story of the people who helped us get there. These stories teach us lessons that go far beyond computing—tales of determination, persistence and overcoming the odds. By sharing this history with our students we can help break the stereotypes about gender and race in computing.

The Human ‘Computers’ Photo

In one of my earlier computer science classes, I posted the following photo that I found on the NASA archives, with the question: Where are the computers?

For my sixth-grade class, this activity offered an interesting start to a class on coding. I got a wide range of responses on the online discussion board. Here are some I remember:

  • The computers are under the desk and so you cannot see them.
  • The computers are in the next room since in the old days a computer took up a whole room.
  • There are no computers since it is an old black and white photo from a time before there were computers.
  • Since the title has the word “computers” in quotes, there are no real computers.

Only a couple of students were able to guess the actual answer: the computers are the women in the picture. The sixth graders were surprised to know that the word “computers” once described a job. The complex computations at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in 1949 were being done by the women in the photo.

I used this photo as a class opener to engage my students. I wanted them to understand one of the first reasons for using computers: to find an efficient way to do long tedious computations that were being done by humans. It was also my segue into an unplugged activity, where they had to act as human computers and execute pseudo computer code to draw an image on graph paper.

I have not used this lesson for several years and had forgotten about it. But last month, after watching the Oscar-nominated movie “Hidden Figures,” I remembered the photo and found the NASA archives link on my computer’s backup drive.

Hidden Figures: The Movie and the Book

“Hidden Figures” is a movie about three brilliant African-American women (Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan) who worked at NASA in the early years of space research. They crossed both gender and race lines and were behind one of the greatest achievements in history—the launch of the astronaut John Glenn into orbit. The movie is based on a non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, which goes much deeper into the details on the challenges of space research and include stories of others in addition to these three women.

For those who have not seen the movie, I highly recommend it. While some may criticize the movie as being more dramatic and “Hollywood” than was necessary, it is a powerful movie that must be watched. The movie has helped bring this untold story to the forefront. Katherine Johnson, one of the three women in the book, received the Presidential Medal Of Freedom in 2015 from President Obama, and got a standing ovation at the Oscar ceremony last month.

Thanks to this movie and the book, searching for “human computers” today yields far more articles and images than those I found in 2011 when I first found the NASA photo for my lesson. (Here’s a good article from the agency’s site about human computers; others can be found here.)

Why ‘Hidden Figures’ Matters to STEM Education

Anyone reading the book or watching the movie may be surprised to know that women, and in particular black women, were so critical in the early days of space research. These women excelled in math, engineering and in programming the early computers.

At a time when the gender and race gap in STEM fields like computer science is particularly worrisome, it is important for our students to see that everyone can succeed in STEM careers. The three women in “Hidden Figures” are role models and an inspiration for women and minorities today.

“Hidden Figures” is not just a story of space research, but of women, notably black women in STEM. However, the movie’s bigger story is about the human endeavor of accomplishing something seemingly impossible: getting a human to orbit the earth. It is a story of persistence, of hard work and most importantly of pushing ahead to do what must be done, even under unfair circumstances.

Educators will also appreciate the fact that most of these human “computers” were not just women, but high school math teachers! They were hired to fill the gap in computation jobs during the space age and in World War II. Today, many of our high school math teachers find themselves transforming into computer science teachers in their schools. They are again filling another gap: the extreme shortage of educators who can bring the essential and fundamental skills of computer science to all our students.

Other Resources on Computer History

In addition to “Hidden Figures,” here are some other stories that can break the gender stereotypes in computing:

The Eniac programmers is a story that was lost for more than 50 years. It tells the tale of six brilliant young women who programmed the first all-electronic, programmable computer, the ENIAC, during World War II. They programmed it without manuals or programming languages—just logical diagrams. However, when the ENIAC was revealed to the press in 1946, the women were never introduced, and their story was lost for decades. This documentary and related articles are an excellent resource in any classroom.

Students will also enjoy learning about Ada Lovelace. She is considered the world’s first computer programmer—even though she died in 1852, many years before the first digital computer was created. Lovelace was a mathematician at a time when women were not encouraged to learn the subject. She collaborated with Charles Babbage on his proposed mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. She was the first to recognize that computers could do applications beyond numbers. (Here is a wonderful article in the New Yorker on her life and work.)

Every December, during Computer Science Education Week (which also coincides with the Hour of Code), I bring up the story of Grace Hopper in my classes. Her pivotal role in computing is a story that must be told and inspires girls in my class who often assume that women have never been very involved in computing. “Amazing Grace,” as she was called for her many accomplishments, invented the first compiler for a programming language. See my article and class lesson plan on Grace Hopper.

These stories should be part of every student’s education so that all children, regardless of gender or race, can identify with STEM and computing. Let us share computer history and break the stereotypes that still exist today.

Sheena Vaidyanathan (@sheena1010) is an EdSurge columnist and teaches computer science as part of a weekly program to approximately 500 sixth graders in Los Altos School District in California.

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