Diversity in STEM

STEM Tuesday– Celebrating Diversity in STEM– Interview with author Tonya Bolden

Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the last Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!

Today we’re interviewing Tonya Bolden , author of Changing the Equation: 50+ Black Women in STEM. This game changing compilation profiles more than fifty women whose significant contributions to science often go unsung. School and Library Journal writes, “Bolden, a master of the collective biography, presents an impeccably-researched call to action, imploring black girls to fight the racial and gender imbalance that plagues the STEM field.”

One of the things that impressed me about our guest author is her passion for children and willingness to light the way for future generations. Her work breathes life into nonfiction subjects, providing young people (and the adults in their lives) with vivid examples to follow. In 2016, Tonya received the Nonfiction Award for Body of Work from the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, DC. for significantly contributing to the quality of nonfiction for children. I am frequently quoted for advocating we provide positive, uplifting books for young people of color. Tonya Bolden is an outstanding example of that in practice. Many of today’s diverse writers, including myself, walk along the path she blazed.

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Christine Taylor-Butler: Tonya, with more than 40 publishing credits to your name you’ve had an amazing career in children’s literature. You once said you were surrounded by books as a child.

Tonya: I did. My parents didn’t complete their education but they had ambitions for me and my sister. They raised us to reach high. To dream big. We didn’t have a lot of money but they knew the value education would play in our lives and made sure we were surrounded by books.

CTB: Was there a particular book that stood out to you as a child?

Tonya Bolden: Yes. The Borrowers, by Mary Norton is one that comes to mind. It’s about little people who secretly live in a house and borrowed things they needed from the owners. There was just something magical about the story and it resonated.

CTB: You were originally uninterested in writing history or nonfiction, or even writing books for children. And yet you are known for writing insightful works in this genre. What changed your mind?

Tonya: While reviewing books for Black Enterprise, I realized that history could be told with passion and heart. If you added soul, nuance, texture and complexity those books could be as fascinating as fiction. I realized there was nothing wrong with history. What had been wrong was how it had been taught when I was a kid.

“I find that historical figures are more fascinating than things people conjure up.”Tonya Bolden, Indian Express

CTB: In various interviews you  talk about writing for children who don’t otherwise see themselves in literature. Who aren’t shown as belonging in the world. 

Tonya: Yes. I wondered, where are the books for children who are aspirational? The kids who want to travel? I wanted to say – especially to girls – so much is possible! A lot of children don’t dream big. After I wrote And Not Afraid to Dare: The Stories of Ten African American Women, that’s when I found my passion for writing for children.

CTB: You hold a Bachelors degree from Princeton and a Master’s degree from Columbia. It might surprise people to know that both degrees are not in history or literature, but in Slavic Languages and Literatures with an emphasis on Russian.  I’ve been advocating for children to learn more than one language. My daughters, for instance, studied Latin, Italian and Japanese. But there is often push back, especially in urban communities. Where did your interest come from?

Tonya: I was 17 when I made that decision. In high school, I fell in love with works by Anton Chekov. It might have had something to do with the fact that I grew up during the Cold War. I’ve always loved languages. I was the first in my family to go to college. Back then, there wasn’t as much pressure on young people because of college costs. You could dabble and follow your bliss. My parents didn’t pressure me to follow a certain career. Their philosophy was “Do whatever you want, but find a way to make a living at it.”

It’s so much harder today for young people to explore their interests in the same way. The stakes are higher because of the high cost of education. But it’s still important for young people to learn languages outside of their own culture and learn about the broader world around them.

Changing The EquationCTB: Your book, Changing the Equation: 50+ US Black Women in STEM is such an important addition to children’s literature. You cover an enormous amount of information. What did the research process look like? Were you able to speak with any of the women you included?

Tonya: It started when I wrote Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls. My research included a profile of Katherine Johnson. Most people know her as one of the original “Hidden Figures.”  After I wrote that profile I was curious to know more about black women in STEM so my research grew out of that curiosity.

PathfindersThere’s a saying, “When a student is ready the ‘teacher appears’.” I read newspapers, books, oral histories and conducted web research to identify people to profile. I was surprised by how much I was able to find when I searched for specific professions. I discovered so many women, I didn’t have room to profile them all.  There were a lot of outtakes. If I had the opportunity, this book would have featured more than one hundred woman but it would have been too big a volume for the industry.

“We still have this stereotype that STEM is for boys and men and that’s not true,” – Tonya Bolden, Amsterdam News

Rebecca Crumpler

Rebecca Crumpler

One thought behind the book – I wanted girls to see how wide the world is. Even in science. Not everyone is in a lab coat. I liked the idea of presenting a Black woman who is an astrophysicist. Or a robotics engineer. I wanted girls to know that if they were going towards something that is tough, that there were people who have done it before them. For example, the first woman in the book, Rebecca Crumpler, was a physician. If this woman could go to Medical school before slavery was abolished then anything is possible.

I was lucky to be able to communicate with a number of the women. They were all very generous with their time. Those women included Mamie Parker (Biologist), Aprille Joy Ericsson (NASA Aerospace Engineer), Pamela McCauley (Industrial Engineer), Ayanna Howard (Roboticist), Treena Livingston Arinzeh (Biomedical Engineer), Paula T. Hammond (Chemical Engineer), Lisa D. White (Geologist), Emma Garrison-Alexander (Cybersecurity), Aomawa Shields (Astronomer and Astrobiologist), and Donna Auguste (Computer Scientist–and more!).

CTB: What advice do you have for young people who might want to follow in your path one day.

Tonya: Read. Read. Read. Master the language in which you want to write. Knowing other languages also helps a writer. Know your own culture and other cultures. If you want to write professionally, be prepared for lean days. It’s hard to get into publishing. I started writing under “write for hire” contracts. That means I wrote books other people wanted done and I took the work I was offered. It was helpful because it kept me flexible and nimble. In the industry it became clear I was open to other people’s ideas and I was offered additional work. It’s harder to get published now. Back in the day, publishers nurtured “house authors”. You would write several books and be given time to find an audience. Now books have a shorter shelf life. If you don’t hit it out the park with that first or second book it may be Game Over! There was a time when publishers focused on helping to build a long-term careers. Having said that, perseverance is key. Follow your passion and don’t give up. A young woman once wrote me to say, “You may not know me, but you have paved a path for me in this industry, and I wanted to personally thank you.”

CTB: So in a way, you’re passing on the dream through your writing.

Tonya: Yes. Doors started to open for many of us in the 1960’s. We grew up hearing about giving back. The work that I do is my way of saying “Thank you” to those people who opened the doors for us. People like Fannie Lou Hamer, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Katherine Johnson, for example.

I always wanted to be useful. In elementary school, I thought I wanted to be a classroom teacher. But in a way that’s what I’m doing now. Teaching young people through the books I’m writing.

Dovey Johnson Roundtree

Dovey Johnson Roundtree

CTB: So what’s next for Tonya Bolden. Are there any books we should be looking for in the future?

Tonya: I have a new book coming out in June 2021: Dovey Undaunted. It’s the biography of Dovey Johnson Roundtree, civil rights attorney. She lived a life of service and was one of the first Black women to enter the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). Dovey was born in Charlotte, North Caroline which is where my father was born. When I was a kid, our family would go down south to visit. I have so many vivid memories of Charlotte. This book seemed like a natural fit for me to write.

How to Build a MuseumAuthor’s note. Tonya Bolden is featured twice on our list this month. Her other book, How to Build A Museum: Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is a must read, featuring little known details about African American history. For those unable to make a visit to Washington, DC, this book is an important addition to your collection.

Changing The Equation

Win a FREE copy of Changing the Equation: 50+ US Black Women in STEM.

Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.

Good luck!

Tonya Bolden

photo by Hayden Celestin

Tonya Bolden has authored and collaborated on more than forty books. Holding degrees from Princeton and Columbia Universities, she originally intended to complete a PhD and teach Russian literature. But her path lead elsewhere. Her first book for young people, an adaptation of the musical, Mama I want to Sing, lead to more contracts to write books for children. The rest is history. Her book, 33 things Every Girl Should Know was praised by Hillary Rodham Clinton in a speech on the 150th anniversary of the first Women’s Rights Convention. Her awards and recognition are too numerous to list in their entirety but include, the Childrens Book Guild Nonfiction award for her body of work, the James Madison Book Award, ALA’s Coretta Scott King Honor Award, NCTE’s Orbis Pictus Award, ALSC Notable Book and multiple nominations for the NAACP Image Award. To learn more about Tonya, please visit www.tonyaboldenbooks.com

Christine Taylor-Butler headshot

photo by Kecia Stovall

Your host is Christine Taylor-Butler, MIT educated STEAM nerd and author of Bathroom Science, Sacred Mountain: Everest, Genetics, and many other nonfiction books for kids. She is also the author of the middle grade sci-fi series The Lost Tribes. Follow @ChristineTB on Twitter and/or @ChristineTaylorButler on Instagram

STEM Tuesday– Celebrating Diversity in STEM– Writing Tips & Resources

Author’s Purpose

Why do authors write what they write? I’ve thought about this question a lot lately. Authors explain their purpose in prologues, epilogues, introductions, or author’s notes. For me, these parts of a book are often as interesting as the main text.

This month’s Celebrating Diversity in STEM– Book List reminds me of why it’s important to have perspectives from diverse authors. As nonfiction authors, we always put ourselves — our passions, our personalities— into our books. Our race and cultural background is part of what makes us who we are. It can influence what stories —and whose stories — we choose to tell. And it also affects how we write our books, adding authenticity and heart. 

A Closer Look at Author’s Purpose

Let’s look at what four of this month’s authors say about their purpose for writing.

In HIDDEN FIGURES, Margot Lee Shetterly writes that growing up she “assumed the face of science was brown,” because her father and people in her community worked in science, math, and engineering. Shetterly soon learned the world was very different when her father was a child. And when Shetterly discovered African-American women mathematicians had worked at NASA Langley Research Center for decades without recognition, she was determined to spotlight their contributions to American history. As Shetterly writes in her prologue, “The contributions made by these African-American women have never been heralded, but they deserve to be remembered and not as a sidetone in someone else’s account but as the center of their own story. …This is their story.”

In WHAT COLOR IS MY WORLD, Kareem Abdul Jabbar also aims to inform readers about overlooked historical figures: “Unfortunately, many of the greatest American inventors have been ignored by history textbooks based on the color of their skin or their gender. …By telling of their unsung but vital contributions, I hope to celebrate these overlooked role models so that we can all appreciate one another in meaningful ways.”


William Kamkwamba (THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND) writes to persuade other youth, especially Africans, to pursue their dreams, “I want you to know your ambitions just as important and worth achieving, however big or small. …Think of your dreams as tiny miracle machines you can tough. The more faith you put into them, the bigger they get, until one day they’ll rise up and take them with you. (Epilogue)” In her introduction to PATH TO THE STARS, Sylvia Acevedo has a similar purpose for telling her story, to inspire young people to “dream big dreams and make those dreams come true.”

Whether the book is a biography or an autobiography, each author’s deep personal connection and passion shine through in their writing. They’ve crafted stories only they can tell.

FINDING YOUR PURPOSE – Story Sparks

That deep, personal connection that ignites our writing is something every good writer aims for. And it starts with the stories or angles we choose — our story sparks. So pull out your writer’s notebook, and let’s get going.

Turn to a clean page in your notebook, and title it “STORY SPARKS.” Now let’s fill it up with ideas.

  • First, what subjects excite you? They could be school subjects like biology, hobbies like knitting or building robots, pets, or your favorite sport. 
  • What kind of books do you like to read? What about TV shows, movies, and music?
  • Are there certain news stories you find most appealing?
  • Maybe there are special places you like to visit, like the beach or a quiet forest.
  • Next think about themes and ideas that interest you. Is it underdogs? Bullies? Being the youngest? Are you interested in social justice or the environment?
  • Finally, like the authors on this month’s book list, think about your personal history, traditions, culture, and community. Do they give you inspiration for stories to tell? If so add them to your list too.

As you make your list, see if you notice any patterns, similarities, or connections that fire up other ideas. If not, try smashing two ideas together like environmental issues plus your favorite spot— the beach? After a little digging, you add ocean pollution to your list.

Here’s the good news. You can use your story sparks to find focus even if your teacher assigns topics for informational writing. Have to write a presidential biography? Is space your jam? Why not pick John F. Kennedy, who launched the U.S. into the Space Race?

Whenever you learn something new and find yourself thinking, “Hmmmmm, that’s interesting,” jot it down. You’ll never run out of ideas. Happy writing!

O.O.L.F.

 


Kirsten W. Larson used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. She’s the author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020), A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything, illustrated by Katy Wu (Clarion, 2021), THE FIRE OF STARS, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Fall 2022), along with 25 other nonfiction books for kids. Find her at kirsten-w-larson.com or on Twitter/Instagram @KirstenWLarson.

STEM Tuesday– Celebrating Diversity in STEM– In the Classroom

This month we are celebrating diversity in STEM with several books that highlight the accomplishments of mathematicians, scientists, inventors, and more, all with diverse backgrounds. These books will help students learn more about these trailblazing STEM pioneers, their lives, and their contributions to science. They are a great starting point for different activities and discussions in the classroom. Here are a few to try:

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Changing the Equation: 50+ U.S. Black Women in STEM by Tonya Bolden

In this book, Bolden examines the lives of trailblazing Black female computer scientists, inventors, mathematicians, and more to inspire young readers.

 

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What Color Is My World? The Lost History of African-American Inventors by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with Raymond Obstfeld, illustrated by Ben Boos and A.G. Ford

Discover African-American inventors with basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

 

Classroom activity: Have students choose a Black pioneer in STEM who they would like to learn more about and research. Then, create a living museum in the classroom. Students can dress up and present to the class what they have learned about their subject from their research.

 

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The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

An inspiring story about the power of books and STEM-thinking. A fourteen-year old Malawi boy who cannot attend school educates himself and learns how to build a windmill to help his village.

Classroom activity: Lead a classroom discussion about windmills. Ask students to describe a windmill and brainstorm what they are used for and how they work. Have students design and build their own windmill using common household materials such as craft sticks, glue, paper cups, string, straws, rubber bands, paper towel rolls, push pins, and more. Have students compare the finished windmills. Which design features worked the best? What design challenges did students face? How did they overcome these challenges? What changes would students make to their windmills based on what they have learned through the design process?

 

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101 Black Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics by L.A. Amber

Young readers will be inspired by the women included in Amber’s book who paved the way for other women of color in STEM fields from the 1800s to today.

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgWomen in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky

Take a peek into the lives of women who chose STEM for their life’s work, trailblazing through a field with few women.

 

Classroom activity: Have students work in pairs and choose a STEM pioneer. Each pair should research their chosen pioneer to learn about their lives and their work. Then, have the students create an interview with their subject. They can present this interview to the class with one student taking the role of interviewer and the other taking the role of the STEM subject.

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Carla Mooney loves to explore the world around us and discover the details about how it works. An award-winning author of numerous nonfiction science books for kids and teens, she hopes to spark a healthy curiosity and love of science in today’s young people. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, three kids, and dog. When not writing, she can often be spotted at a hockey rink for one of her kids’ games. Find her at http://www.carlamooney.com, on Facebook @carlamooneyauthor, or on Twitter @carlawrites.