[The following article was written by Christopher Harris, director of the School Library System for the Genesee Valley Educational Partnership in New York. Chris also serves as a Youth and Technology Fellow for the American Library Association’s Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP).]
“Miles from Tomorrowland,” a relatively new show from Disney Junior, has plotted a course to bring computer science to young viewers. Perhaps more importantly, the team behind the show has made intentional choices to encourage young girls to consider computer science and other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields as great options for the future. The show has been developed as a collaborative effort between Disney, Google, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). On Monday, the three organizations gathered at the Google offices in Washington, D.C. to showcase the success and think about future plans. But what does this have to do with libraries? Patience…first we must consider the backstory.
Following in the footsteps of the original Star Trek where creator Gene Roddenberry cast Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura in one of the first professional roles for an African-American female, “Miles from Tomorrowland” showcases women in key positions. In the show, a family is travelling through space working for the Tomorrowland Transportation Authority. The captain of the family ship is the mother, and Miles’ big sister Loretta is the computer science whiz who guides Miles through his adventures and is always ready to save the day. What are we currently doing in our libraries—and what more might we be doing—to also highlight women in STEM and leadership fields?
Nichelle Nichols’ portrayal of Uhura on Star Trek was inspirational to many women in the 1970s. She was even hired by NASA to help bring more women and minorities into the space program; a mission that resulted in the recruitment of the first six women astronauts – including the very notable Sally Ride – in 1978.
The idea of having a female astronaut as captain of the ship in Miles of Tomorrowland was based on real life astronaut Dr. Yvonne Cagle. Dr. Cagle, the second African-American woman selected by NASA for astronaut training, completed her training in 1998 and has been working as a strong advocate for getting more young women into STEM fields ever since.
The statistics are a bit frightening when you really stop and consider them. in 1984, one year after Sally Ride became the first American woman in space and in the prime of Adm. Grace Hopper’s media coverage as a female computer scientist, only 37 percent of those entering computer science fields were women according to research from Google. Things have not improved; in fact the situation has become quite alarming. In 2009, women made up only 18 percent of those pursuing computer science. Today, despite making up roughly half of the U.S. workforce, women fill less than 25 percent of STEM (pdf) related jobs in the country.
“Miles from Tomorrowland” is hoping to change things. Creator Sascha Paladino spoke yesterday about the birth of his twin sons as inspiration for the show. He wanted his sons to see positive female role models in the captain and a big sister who used computer programming to solve problems. Quick…name three books from your library that feature female military commanders, female scientists, or female computer programmers.
For older readers, the first challenge is relatively easy thanks to some amazing science-fiction series like David Weber’s Honor Harrington or Elizabeth Moon’s (herself a former computer specialist with the Marines) Vatta and Serano books. Octavia Butler’s work also stands out as promoting both women characters and highlighting people of color as protagonists. For younger readers? Margaret Bechard’s “Star Hatchling” and Madeline L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” come to mind. But where are the mainstream series like Junie B. Jones or Cam Jansen where girls are shown being interested in and excelling in STEM fields?
What I took away from the event yesterday is that there is a huge amount of interest in encouraging young girls to consider STEM careers. Google, Disney, and NASA are working on this through “Miles from Tomorrowland” for very young viewers, but also in other ways. Google’s Made with Code project empowered girls as coders able to take over their state’s Christmas tree at the White House and program the lights.
What I also heard yesterday is that more work is needed. Two Congresswomen, Representative Susan Brooks (R-IN) and Representative Suzan DelBene (D-WA) are working to highlight the importance of STEM in schools and the need to encourage girls to go into STEM fields. They have co-sponsored an effort to have computer programming added to ESEA as a required field for K-12 education. Who better to lead this instructional effort than the school librarians? Who better to support the early learning that can accompany efforts like “Miles From Tomorrowland” and the extension beyond the classroom than public librarians?
So then the question. The whole point of this post. Are you ready to step up and participate in this effort? Google’s research shows that one of the key contributing factors to young women considering a STEM field in college is encouragement from a parent or other adult (teacher, guidance counselor…librarian?). What will you do in your library to encourage girls and young women to become interested in STEM fields? How will you support their learning to help them build self-confidence as STEM experts? How will you help bridge the gender divide in STEM careers to better help the country fill the numerous current and future STEM field job openings?
How will your library and you as a librarian become a champion of STEM learning for all – but especially for the currently underrepresented such as women and minorities?
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