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Auburn High School Physics Students Driving Change

posters created by students

During Black History Month my physics students took time to examine the underrepresentation of various groups in science, engineering and mathematics careers.

One of the assignments was for students to create a poster highlighting a Black scientist and to tell their story. Students were asked to include a photo of their scientist on the poster in addition to career highlights.

One of my students, Isabella, decided to research Dorothy Vaughan, the first black female supervisor for NASA. Unfortunately, she kept finding photos of other Black computers labeled with her name. One picture in particular had us puzzled, because she didn't quite fit anyone's visual. We noted how this experience in and of itself made for an interesting statement on underrepresentation and marginalization.

A few days later I ran across the NASA announcement that one of the mountains on the moon is to be named after Melba Mouton. The photo? The same one we were puzzling over! I was eager to share this with my student, and I started doing a Google image search for Dorothy Vaughan, specifically looking for this photo of Melba.

The first mislabeled photo that popped up on the Google search was from the University of California, Berkeley. Their library hosted a Women who Figure exhibition in 2016 when the movie “Hidden Figures” came out. The exhibit featured women across history who were notable mathematicians. On the page for Dorothy Vaughan’s index was this photo of Melba Mouton.

I asked Isabella to share her story with the rest of the class and then pointed out the mislabeled photo on UC Berkeley’s website. Students then worked in small groups to draft a letter to the curators. They told our story and expressed why it is so important to give proper credit to the proper figures. We compiled these letters into one final letter which was sent to the curators.

In less than a day we received a response. Not only were they going to fix the mistake, they were also going to add Melba’s contributions to their Women who Figure list on the website!

During that week students learned a lot more than physics content. They learned about how the sciences fit into the larger structure of our society and how they can use their voice to elevate others.

Marianna Ruggerio headshot

Marianna Ruggerio

Marianna Ruggerio teaches physics and AP physics at Auburn High School and is an adjunct professor at Rockford University. She is an active member of the American Association of Physics Teachers and a teacher-leader with the University of Illinois Physics and Secondary Schools Partnership Program.

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