Changing the Narrative of Women in Science: An Interview with Science Wide Open

It is 2016 and in the education world four little letters are among the hottest of all topics. STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. There are STEM schools, academies, and magnets popping up in most public school districts. Summer camps and after-school programs are focusing on these areas. Amazing programming for marginalized youth groups like Black Girls Code have a vision to empower young women of color to become STEM leaders. To explore another great opportunity in STEM for the youth, girls especially, we sat down with Mary Wissinger, writer for Science Wide Open.

Science Wide Open is a children’s book series that explains and teaches some basic concepts in chemistry, biology, and physics by highlighting women scientists who have made some of the most mind blowing scientific advancements in history. We talked about their amazing Kickstarter campaign, our favorite children’s literature authors and illustrators, the importance of women of color in science, and our own experiences with science in our educational careers.

Black Nerd Problems: Let’s break the ice by sharing our similar experiences in the world of education. I’m a big, big children’s lit fan. So tell me, who is your favorite children’s lit author or illustrator?

Mary Wissinger: That’s really a tough question. If I’m thinking, like classic stuff, I grew up reading a lot of Maurice Sendak. I really enjoyed that. In terms of early stuff, I really like Eric Carle, too. Just The Hungry Caterpillar, it’s so beautiful and simple and the kind of story that kids want to read over and over again and I feel like many adults remember it, too.

BNP: I’m a huge Eric Carle fan, too. Now, in talking about Science Wide Open, where did you guys get the idea for the Women in Science series?

MW: So, this is the second collaboration that I’ve done with Genius Games. The first one was geared toward toddlers and it was like a chemistry textbook, except for kids. So, it was rhyming and it talked about a proton, a neutron, and an electron and how they all came together in the atom and that did really well on Kickstarter. John had the idea for that when he had a two-year-old daughter, so he thought “it would be so cool if I had a book like X.” Then after the success of the My First Science textbook campaign, he said “I want a way to continue to draw my daughter into the world of science and how the world works. I would love to do a set of books about women in science” and I said I am so totally on board. So, I delved into the research and I kept coming to these questions that women were driven by as they were doing their experiments and making their discoveries. That’s what gave the format to the book, eventually. The main character, this little girl who is very curious is asking questions about how the world works, and that’s how the women are introduced and how the topics are introduced as well.

BNP: Very nice. What is it that you and John really hope to accomplish with these books?

MW: Oh man. [laughs] Several things, I would say there are three main parts. First of all, to help all kids be more engaged in science, particularly girls. Second of all, to change what it looks like to be a scientist. And, if we’re really looking towards a positive change in the future, making sure that it is also a more diverse community. Third of all, bringing attention to the amazing scientists, these women who have essentially been written out of history or obscured or forgotten…to bring their stories to say look at these women who have changed the world, they shouldn’t be forgotten.

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BNP: You brought up diversity, which leads me to the next question. I love the commercial on your Kickstarter page. Those girls rocked, they were amazing. From the kids that you guys chose to be in the video and then looking at some of the illustrations, the series looks to be very diverse. How important was it for you to include women of color in this series?

MW: So important. That was something that we were very passionate about, because you look at the current science population it’s really very homogeneous. We all know that diversity of thinking leads to really incredible discoveries. So, we thought that diversity needs to be a part of it from the inception of the book and it needs to be a consideration in what we do. That was something really important to us, because women have always faced challenges in multiple fields but if we just look at science, they’ve faced a lot of hardship and overcome a lot of difficulty. That is magnified so much for women of color. Their stories need to be shared.

BNP: Many of us are very excited about this book series. One of the questions from some of the women of Black Nerd Problems is what role models in science did you have growing up?

MW: Ummm, I didn’t really. Actually. And that’s one of the reasons that I was so passionate about this project. When I was growing up, I got this distinct impression that science wasn’t for girls. Which, I know is not true, but as a child I just felt that the way that teachers responded to boys was different from the way that they responded to girls in the science classroom. Then I completely missed the fact that science is actually something that really interests me. So, as I’ve done more science writing and I’ve learned about how amazing science is, I have just thought that it’s so important that girls don’t get boxed out from a young age.

BNP: Wow, that’s pretty significant. I tried to think of my own answer to that question and I couldn’t think of a scientist that I ever identified with. That’s why this series is so important. Why is it so important to instill a curiosity about science early on in children?

MW: I think children are natural scientists. They are constantly asking questions. Even if you look at a toddler. You know when they play that dropping game where they keep dropping something on the floor? They’re actually running an experiment, right? They’re experimenting with gravity. They’re learning about sound, like what noise does it make when it hits the floor and they’re running a social experiment to see how many times is this person going to pick up this thing for me. [laughs] So, already they are just incredibly innately curious and if we tap into that and show them how to ask questions about the world, they’ll be unstoppable. If I think about a classroom full of kids who are actually curious about learning and are taught to explore and to follow their own questions then those are the kids who are going to be making amazing, beautiful, creative things happening in the future.

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BNP: I want to touch a little bit on accessibility. What is the significance of having both e-books and printed books available?

MW: Well, people love books so we always want to make sure that we have books available because for some people it’s a very tactile experience. There are other people who are more interested in interacting with ideas in a technological format, whether that’s an e-reader or iPad or doing it on the computer. It’s important that we are catering to how people actually use the books and find them meaningful. What’s good about the digital books is that there aren’t the shipping costs, so for people who aren’t in the United States it’s still a feasible option for them to be a part of the campaign.

BNP: The movie Hidden Figures is coming out in December. It highlights three African American women who were pivotal in the U.S.’s missions to the moon. What do you think about the movie coming out and your timing with this Science Wide Open series?

MW: I’m so excited about that movie. We have plans for future books and Katherine Johnson is going to be in the one about mathematicians and programmers. So, she’s going to make an appearance, which I’m really excited about. I think it’s a really exciting time because there are a lot of projects telling the stories of these women and it’s a unique opportunity because I think it’s reaching a critical mass of people saying that it’s time. It’s time for changes to occur, it’s time for these stories to be brought to life, it’s time for there to be equal opportunities in science in our world. I am just lit up about it. I’m so excited.

BNP: For those of our readers who will be learning about your Kickstarter for the first time, what is it that you would like to say to them about your Science Wide Open campaign?

MW: The stories of these women are inspirational. You’re going to read these books and be in awe about what these women were able to achieve despite so many road blocks in their careers. This is a really amazing opportunity for us to support the youth of our world and show them that they have just as good of a chance at achieving their dreams as anyone else.

Thank you to Mary for taking the time go sit down with BNP to talk about Science Wide Open and the Women In Science series. If you haven’t already, go to their Kickstarter to find out more about their campaign. There are several cost effective ways to back them and it looks like the rewards will be endless. Thank you to Mary and John for embarking on a journey toward enriching the lives of our youth and especially our young girls who have been marginalized and forgotten about in the STEM world for far too long.

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