Last November, President Obama bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom award on Margaret Hamilton for her contributions to the Apollo 11 space mission. Hamilton led the software engineering team that developed the computer code that powered the capsule that put the first men on the moon.
In early January, the movie Hidden Figures hit movie theaters. The film tells the previously untold story of how three African-American mathematicians, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, helped launch astronaut John Glenn into orbit, among other space missions.
Like many people, I was inspired by the stories of these remarkable women who shaped America's space program. But what really struck me was the fact that I had never heard of them before. It took a presidential award, and a Hollywood movie production, to make the names of these women known to me and millions of other people around the world.
The fact that these and other notable women in the sciences are largely unknown to young girls like my 11-year-old daughter is a glaring problem, the responsibility for which lies largely in the hands of our education system. Schools trumpet the accomplishments of men like Neil Armstrong and John Glenn as the heroes of the space age, yet overlook the contributions of the many women who played instrumental roles in the realization of our dream to conquer space.
That's why we'll need to rely on other channels and formats to spread the word. Lego, the Danish toy company and a brand known to millions of children and parents around the world, took one small step forward recently in bringing these remarkable women to greater awareness when it chose to feature five women who helped build America's space program as Lego toy figures.
In addition to Margaret Hamilton and Katherine Johnson, the new "Women of NASA" Lego toy set will include Sally Ride, the first American woman to go to space; Nancy Grace Roman, an astronomer who helped plan the Hubble space telescope; and Mae Jemison, an astronaut who became the first African-American woman in space in 1992.
The concept was developed by Maia Weinstock, a science writer at MIT who has a strong interest in space exploration and a passion for telling the story of women in science and engineering. Weinstock's concept went through a months-long process at Lego Ideas, which required her to collect 10,000 signatures for her concept to be formally entered into the next phase of their rigorous selection process.
In a video posted on Lego Ideas' blog on February 28, Lego Ideas' marketing director announced that they had selected the "Women of NASA" toy concept from among a dozen other qualified submissions to their Lego's Ideas competition. "Women of NASA was a way for (Weinstock) to celebrate accomplished women in the STEM professions." The set is now moving through Lego's design and production process, and should hit store shelves sometime at the end of 2017, or in early 2018.
Clearly more needs to be done to encourage girls to study the academic subjects and pursue the career paths that will take them into science and technology-related fields. For the space program, in particular, we'll need many more women to become mathematicians, engineers, coders, and project managers. And we'll need many more female astronauts.
Reaching girls when they are young is going to be key to this effort, as a new study by Andrei Cimpian and Sarah-Jane Leslie, published in the journal Science, shows. They found that by the age of 6, young girls are less likely than boys to view their own gender as "brilliant."
Girls as young as 6 start to believe that specific activities are "not for them" simply because they think they're not smart enough. "Our research suggests that American children are picking up on cultural stereotypes about brilliance at an early age. Unfortunately, these stereotypes suggest that girls aren't as smart as boys," they wrote in a recent essay in The New York Times.
The change in perception happens fast: At age 5, boys and girls were equally likely to associate intelligence with their own gender. But once they turn 6, girls were significantly less likely to associate brilliance with their own gender. Their research also suggests that these stereotypes may have enduring effects. "Once internalized, they begin to guide girls' interests away from things that they perceive as 'not for them.'"
Unfortunately, schools are notoriously slow to change. Government bureaucracy, administrative inertia, and budget constraints conspire against the innovations needed in a school system that is always a few steps behind what our children need to prepare for their future.
But while we wait for schools to catch up, let's take a moment to applaud Maia Weinstock's brilliantly creative contribution, and Lego's smart support for her project. It's a small but important step forward in inspiring the girls of today to become the astronauts and rocket scientists of tomorrow.
This article also appeared on LinkedIn.