What is STEM? STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math and is usually used to describe educational programs or career paths. Throughout history, pioneers in STEM have made incredible contributions that have propelled us into the future. Some groups have historically been and continue to be underrepresented in STEM, such as individuals who identify as female and/or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). At Kids Co., we strive to create safe environments where ALL kids have the opportunity to explore STEM subjects. So, as Black History Month draws to a close, we thought it was important to recognize the contributions of some of the Black men and women in STEM. As a bonus, we are sharing some fun STEM projects you can try at home.
Jane C. Wright: Cancer Researcher
Jane C. Wright’s father was one of the first African Americans to graduate from Harvard Medical School. Wright followed in her father’s footsteps, studying medicine and graduating with honors from New York Medical College in 1945. She began her career as a physician, but soon turned to cancer research, working with her father at the Cancer Research Foundation at Harlem Hospital where he was director. She worked closely with her father, conducting patient trials for chemotherapy treatments. When she was 33, she succeeded her late father as the new director.
Dr. Wright later served on the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke under Lyndon B. Johnson. By 1967, she became the highest ranking African American woman of a nationally ranked medical institution, serving as a professor of surgery, head of the Cancer Chemotherapy Department, and an associate dean at New York Medical College. In 1971, she became the first female president of the New York Cancer Society. Dr. Wright’s contributions to cancer treatment and heart health made a lasting impact on the medical field.
Roy Clay Sr.: Silicon Valley Computer Techie
Roy Clay Sr. is often called the “Godfather of Silicon Valley” for his contributions to the tech industry. In 1951 he became the first African American graduate of St. Louis University. After graduation, he faced discrimination when trying to break into the technology sector, but he persisted, and landed a job as a computer programmer. In 1965, seven years after writing a coding program for the U.S. Department of Energy, Clay was recruited by Hewlett-Packard (HP). He created and ran the computer development division, writing the software for HP’s first computer. Clay later founded Rod-L Electronics, a company that produces electrical safety test equipment. In 2003, he was inducted into the Silicon Valley Engineering Council’s Hall of Fame.
Roy Clay Sr. recognized the importance of increasing diversity in STEM and spent his career supporting and encouraging Black participation in tech. Other Black leaders have also recognized the importance of these endeavors. Kimberly Bryant started Black Girls CODE to “build pathways for young women of color to embrace the current tech marketplace as builders and creators by introducing them to skills in computer programming and technology.” While people who identify as female and/or BIPOC continue to be underrepresented in tech, the efforts of pioneers like Clay and Bryant are helping to engage and inspire the BIPOC and female techies of the future.
Garrett Morgan: “the Black Edison”
Garrett Morgan, the self-proclaimed Black Edison, first started inventing in the wake of tragedy. After the now-famous fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York, Morgan began work on a gas mask to help prevent smoke inhalation in rescuers. His ingenious design pulled air from ground level and required no oxygen canisters or compressors. Morgan was met with racism when trying to sell his invention, but his innovation won out in the end. He hired a white actor to act as the inventor and demonstrated the invention on himself. After a deadly gas explosion in Cleveland, Morgan and his safety device came to the rescue, when Morgan personally pulled the eight survivors to safety. Sadly, he received no official recognition for his efforts, although his designs were used as the basis for the design of the gas masks used during World War I.
A few years later, Garrett Morgan was witness to a horrific accident between an automobile and a buggy. He saw a way to improve the two-light traffic signal in use at the time. He added a third light, what is now amber, that served as a bridge between stop and go. This simple and ingenious innovation forever changed the world of traffic safety. Morgan’s story shows us that inspiration and progress can come, even from tragedy, and that persistence and resilience are invaluable skills for great innovators.
Katherine Johnson: NASA mathematician
Katherine Johnson had a clever mind and a dedication to education. She graduated with high honors from West Virginia State College and taught public school in Virginia. In 1939 she was chosen as one (and the only woman) of just three Black students to desegregate West Virginia University. While she left school to raise a family, in 1953 she took a position at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory. This laid the groundwork for her most famous role, making life-saving calculations for NASA space programs. In 1962, NASA called on Johnson to manually complete calculations to ensure a safe orbital flight for John Glen. The crew put all of their faith in Johnson and her mathematical genius. Johnson worked at Langley for 33 years, contributing greatly to space exploration. In 2015, then president, Barack Obama, awarded Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Katherine Johnson was made even more famous by her depiction in the movie Hidden Figures. Her contributions inspired other women and people of color to pursue careers in aerospace. In 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, and Guion “Guy” Bluford became the first African American in space. In 1992, Mae Carol Jemison became the first Black woman in space. Through the passion and dedication of pioneers like Johnson, Ride, Bluford, and Jemison, Americans can continue to shoot for the stars!
Want to learn more? Here are some more resources about Black contributions to STEM:
Brimming with curiosity? Here are even more STEM projects to try: