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Women's History and NJ STEM Month Celebrates Groundbreaking Female Innovators

By Jacquelyn Anderson and Krisha Patel, 2022 Governor's STEM Scholars

March comes to a close, so does the confluence of New Jersey STEM Month and Women’s History Month. Women in STEM have navigated tough terrain throughout time, but coal under pressure creates a diamond. Young women across New Jersey–and the world–can learn from women who have charted paths in innovation and discovery and gain important skills to prepare us for the future through their stories.

Sixty-five percent of kids entering schools today will end up working in a job that doesn’t yet exist, according to the World Economic Forum. The same can be said for Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer. In the early nineteenth century, Lovelace translated and developed programming notes to Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, the basis for modern computers. A brilliant mathematician, Ms. Lovelace used critical thinking skills to create a new science or as she said, “the science of operations, as derived from mathematics more especially, is a science of itself, and has its own abstract truth and value.”

Lovelace wasn’t alone in STEM breakthroughs over time. Marie Curie, the Mother of Modern Physics, discovered the radioactive elements of radium and polonium, leading to the first mobile x-ray machines and cancer treatments that have saved many. Curie was repeatedly overlooked throughout her career, including being left on the application for the Nobel Prize application–the first of two she went onto win. Curie dedicated her life to her work, saying, “I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy.” But she persevered, even after the death of her husband and research partner, to become one of the most important women in science.

Lovelace and Curie were groundbreaking women in the fields of computer science and physics respectively, but women like Katherine Johnson and Dr. Ellen Ochoa continued to break barriers for women and scientists of color in the fields of space exploration within the latter part of the 20th century and into the 21st century. Johnson was instrumental in early American space travel as a mathematician working on Mercury and Apollo missions. As the first female scientist at NASA to be credited in a report and as a black woman in the segregated South, Johnson has to overcome racism and sexism to become one of the most important Hidden Figures behind the space race. Ochoa was the first Hispanic woman to go into space, breaking racial barriers for women throughout the world. She became the first Hispanic director and second female director of NASA's Johnson Space Center. These women were leaders in their field, opening doors for others in STEM fields such as aerospace engineering and math.

As technology advances at breakneck speeds, students today must have core soft skills to be prepared for their future careers. Skills such as critical thinking, perseverance, and leadership are often defined as 21st century skills and are fundamental to preparing students for a more connected and complex world. But we cannot assume these skills are only encapsulated in 21st century students and professionals. Young girls just have to look back to the female scientists and innovators–such as Lovelace, Currie, Johnson and Ochoa–for clear examples of these skills. These women gave future generations of young women and girls in STEM the inspiration to achieve great things, in turn, young women and girls in STEM are the future of innovation. Let’s celebrate the past and the future of women in STEM this New Jersey STEM Month and Women’s History Month.

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