A three-girl team from Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington D.C. made it to the finals of the NASA-sponsored OPSPARC 2018 science competition.
Seventeen-year-old Bria Snell, India Skinner, and Mikayla Sharrieff are the only all-black, all-female group to make it this far in the Optimus Prime-themed contest, which challenged students of all ages to “be the spark” and come up with “spinoffs” for NASA technologies that could be transformed into something to be used in the everyday world.
The three girls came up with the idea of the IN3-Incubator Program, designed to purify lead-contaminated water in public schools by using filtration jars that filter water while detecting pH imbalances. Their project was chosen among the eight finalists and made it into the round of public voting, which prompted the trio to turn to social media and rake up votes to win this part of the competition.
According to Blavity.com, Snell, Skinner, and Sharrieff were in the lead and had amassed 78 percent of the votes on the day before the public voting challenge was set to end. This made the three girls first in line to be chosen by NASA and win a two-day trip to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where they would participate in science workshops, plus a $4,000 stipend to cover expenses.
However, the voting section on the OPSPARC site closed early because “attempts were made to corrupt the public choice voting for grades 9-12,” NASA informed on the competition’s website.
The Huffington Post reports that the voting results were sabotaged by members of an anonymous Internet forum called 4chan, who alleged that the girls didn’t deserve to reach the finals and that their 78 percent voting score was only due to the black community’s support, which favored Snell, Skinner, and Sharrieff because they were black.
In addition to the racial attack on the 17-year-old girls, 4chan members recommended computer programs that would hack the voting system in order to skew the results in favor of a group of teenage boys.
As a result, NASA suspended the public voting on April 29 and announced that the top three Public Choice teams in each category of the OPSPARC Challenge will be notified on the competition’s website.
“Unfortunately, it was brought to NASA’s attention yesterday that some members of the public used social media, not to encourage students and support STEM, but to attack a particular student team based on their race and encouraged others to disrupt the contest and manipulate the vote,” stated the NASA announcement.
“NASA continues to support outreach and education for all Americans and encourages all of our children to reach for the stars.”
The U.S. space agency mentioned that competition organizers have accurate records of the voting results prior to the hacker attack and that the final decision will be made by a panel of NASA judges. The winner of the OPSPARC Challenge is to be announced later this month.
News of the racial attack on the three Banneker students eventually reached the District of Columbia Mayor’s Office, the Washington Post reports. According to the media outlet, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s administration reacted by announcing that it would award $4,000 to the three girls that were targeted by the racist hacker group.
“Mikayla, India and Bria are reminding us that the good in our world is stronger than the hate, and we want them to know that the District has their back,” Mayor Bowser wrote in her weekly newsletter.
Although Snell, Skinner, and Sharrieff didn’t comment on the racial attack, they did, however, voice their opinion about women’s position in the STEM field (an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math).
“In the STEM field, we are underrepresented, Sharrieff told the Washington Post.
“It’s important to be role models for a younger generation who want to be in the STEM field but don’t think they can,” she added.
As per a 2015 report from the National Science Foundation, nearly half of scientists and engineers are white men. White women make up 18 percent of all people employed in the science field, while black women only represent two percent of professionals working in science and engineering occupations.
The three girls, who are all on the high school’s cheerleading team, said they plan to pursue careers rooted in science. Skinner wants to be a pediatric surgeon, Sharrieff aims to be a biomedical engineer, and Snell hopes to be an anesthesiologist, notes the Chicago Tribune.
Following the racial attack on the three teenage girls, Black Women Who Plan and Create (BWWPC) created a GoFundMe campaign to raise money in order to help the three girls reach their scientific goals. The BWWPC hopes to raise as much as $20,000 for the Banneker students. As of yesterday afternoon, the sum has already reached $3,100.