Racists Hack NASA Competition

Black Girl STEM Magic Incite Racist Hackers of NASA Competition

By Anita Estell

Sources do not reveal whether it was a scientist, mixologist, or someone else who first turned lemons into lemonade.  Whatever the case, historical notes suggest the origin of turning bitter lemons into a sweet concoction is traced to Egypt, around 1000 AD.  Approximately 20 millennia later, three Banneker High School juniors – India Skinner, Mikayla Sharrieff and Bria Snell, also known as “IBM” by their mothers and friends — demonstrated aptitude and poise in the design of filters to purify lead-contaminated water.  More relevantly, they transformed an otherwise difficult situation into something positive — without missing a beat, they effectively turned lemons into lemonade.

Marissa Jennings with contestants at their induction into the National Honor Society for Mathematics and Spanish

On April 29, 2018, the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) shut down a high school science competition because a group of online racist trolls hacked the competition to sabotage the efforts of an all-black, all-female team. The team had garnered more than 70,000 votes, and over 75 percent of public support.  Word of the sabotage and subsequent shut-down went viral in days, garnering the attention of national leaders and news media.  Black Women Who Plan and Create established a GoFundMe page to support a scholarship fund for the three contestants, to which Shonda Rimes contributed.  Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser has committed $4,000 in scholarship money. Chelsea Clinton and Jimmy Fallon, and many others championed their cause. The three Banneker High School juniors – India Skinner, Mikayla Sharrieff and Bria Snell – demonstrated uncanny finesse and grace in the aftermath of the online assault.  NASA is expected to announce which of the three finalist teams is the winner of the competition by the end of May

The recent racially motivated hacking of the NASA OPSPARC high school student competition reflects a bitter slice of realities associated with being black and female in the United States. Fate would have it that the all-black-girl team demonstrated other profound realties associated with being black and female in the US.  The courage, composure, and talent of the three female high school students who were targeted in the attack provide a refreshing anecdote to an otherwise troubling development.  More importantly, the lessons learned from this incident provide NASA and Congress a rare opportunity to develop policies and programs relevant to the broader engagement of black women and girls, and other women of color in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields of study.

5 things we learned, and steps NASA can take to promote greater inclusion of black girls and others:

Significant numbers of diverse talent ready to engage. The NASA hacking incident demonstrates that despite the need for more diverse talent in STEM fields of study, there already is a strong crop of talent anxious to engage, we just have to do a better job of reaching prospects and addressing intersectionality issues (color, gender, class) unique to black women and women of color.  Quite frankly, NASA should embrace partnerships and collaboratives with professionals and advocates like Marissa Jennings, the program manager who recruited the candidates and assisted them as a part of her work with the Inclusive Innovation Incubator located on the campus of Howard University.

Intentional outreach needed. The story of IBM (India, Bria, and Mikayla) exposes the distinct intersectional challenges that affect black women and girls in STEM. According to a report published by Leanin.org and McKinsey Company, it is the issue of “intersectionality” that deserves an intentional and coordinated approach to ensure advancement of black women and other women of color along the pathway leading to the C-Suite.  Other reports confirm the distinct challenges younger women and girls face in the K-16 educational pipeline in the area of STEM.

Opportunity to capture community enthusiasm. NASA also has a unique opportunity to capture the engagement and enthusiasm demonstrated in support of these young women. This opportunity can be used as an impetus for the agency to establish programs that provide greater engagement of underserved populations, targeted competitions, and employment opportunities that are more inclusive for black women and girls, and other populations.

Need more scholarships and internships for girls (and women) of color.  Making more scholarships and internships available for female high school and college students of color will allow the agency to amplify national efforts related to the broader engagement of women and girls in STEM.

Need to assess numbers of women of color employed in senior positions at federal science agencies.  To the extent that baby boomers at some point will  increasingly leave positions in the federal government, a review is needed to ensure that efforts are underway to ensure the recruitment and hiring of women of color who belong to Generations X, Y and Z.  Such a review is recommended to ensure we access all the talent we can to support the nation’s STEM requirements.