In honor of February and March, which are both months honoring women’s history, we wanted to explore the impact women have had in the STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) fields.
In 2016 the movie Hidden Figures was released in theaters, which shed light on a group of African American women who worked at NASA during the Space Race and explored their previously covered up contributions to the mission. Not only was it a great movie, but it even received 3 Academy Award Nominations!
It got us thinking, what other women have made significant contributions to STEM in American History and what do we know about them?
Below we explore 3 influential women in American history who were the first in their field to do something BIG! They are just like any woman taking their gifts and talents to do something extraordinary in the fields of STEM.
The 1st American Woman to Graduate Medical School – 168 years ago
Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Britain and was the first woman to graduate from medical school in America.
She tried for many years to find a medical school that would accept her and was repeatedly denied. Finally she found a college that was open to the idea of a woman student. The decision to allow her to attend was left up to the student body instead of the faculty. The student body had to unanimously agree to let her join. If one person said no she was out. Miraculously, for the time, 150 male medical students agreed and she was officially accepted in October 1847 to Hobart College (at that time it was called Geneva Medical College) and Elizabeth Blackwell made history.
After graduation, she went on to travel and practice medicine the rest of her life and mentored many other women in the field of medicine and even served as a nurse during the Civil War.
Her sister Emily later followed in her footsteps to become the 3rd woman in American history to obtain a medical degree.
1st American Woman to Receive a PhD in Mathematics – 131 years ago
Winifred Edgerton Merrill was the first woman to receive her PhD in Mathematics from Columbia University in 1886. Her thesis title being “Multiple Integrals and Their Geometrical Interpretation of Cartesian Geometry, in Trilinears and Triplanars, in Tangentials, in Quaternions, and in Modern Geometry; Their Analytical Interpretations in the Theory of Equations, Using Determinants, Invariants and Covariants as Instruments in the Investigation".
Can you say impressive?
She went on to teach Mathematics at various schools, and later founded the Oaksmere School for Girls in 1906. One of her biggest accomplishments was writing a system that translated signatures into music!
50 years after Winifred graduated, a portrait of her was given to Columbia inscribed with “She opened the door.” that now hangs on campus as an inspiration for other women pursuing mathematics.
The 1st American Woman to Travel in Outer Space - 34 years ago
Sally Ride was the first American woman in space in 1983, and the 3rd overall woman after Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982, both of whom were from Russia. Before joining NASA Sally studied for a few semesters at Swarthmore College, eventually transferring to Stanford University, where she went on to earn her Bachelor’s, Masters and a PhD in Physics! She was chosen from over 8,000 people who applied to the space program.
After her historic career at NASA she went on to have a diverse level of experiences including being a professor and the President and CEO of Sally Ride Science a company that creates engaging science programs for elementary and middle school student, with a focus on girls.
She has had everything from Navy Ships to pop songs named after her and was even awarded the U.S.’ highest honor the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 after her death.
If you want to learn about more women that work with NASA and their accomplishments visit https://women.nasa.gov/
It doesn’t matter the year, the opportunities for women in STEM are all around, past and present.
So how do we get more girls and women interested in STEM opportunities? To start it is important to make sure that girls are exposed to STEM early in life, and that we focus on abilities and talents that are developed throughout their education. It is also important that we continue to feature and highlight strong, capable, and intelligent women role models leading the way in STEM.
One high school in the Philadelphia suburbs that is doing a great job of leading the way with women in STEM is Lansdale Catholic in Lansdale, PA.
At Lansdale Catholic emphasis is placed on offering students STEM opportunities. In fact not only do they have a dedicated STEM program but the positive response generated the hiring of a full time STEM Coordinator who also happens to be a female, Mary Antoni. She is in charge of a myriad of projects including STEM competitions, job shadowing, organizing STEM lectures, collaborating with Universities to extended educational opportunities, summer academic STEM programs, STEM career fair and career guidance in the STEM disciplines.
We reached out to Mary to ask her to comment on the successful STEM program at Lansdale Catholic, she stated:
“Two unusual facts, which likely play a role in Lansdale Catholic’s significant female STEM statistics, are a full-time, female STEM coordinator who specializes in STEM career advising, and a STEM faculty consisting of 85% females with advanced degrees. This environment provides female students with STEM role models that are not typically present at most high schools. Furthermore, female engineers, physicians, mathematicians, and computer science professionals are invited to career fairs and lecture series in equal number as their male counterparts. Students are continually exposed to an atmosphere of equality and gender blind competency.”
Congratulations not only to Lansdale Catholic but all local high schools that are taking the initiative to promote STEM. The future of women in STEM looks pretty darn bright from where we are, would you agree?