By Perry Stein | Washington Post
The three District of Columbia students couldn’t believe the news. They’d developed a method to purify lead-contaminated water in school drinking fountains, and NASA announced last month that they were finalists in the agency’s prestigious high school competition – the only all-black, female team to make it that far.
“Hidden figures in the making,” one of the teens wrote in a celebratory text message to her teammates and coaches, a reference to the 2016 movie about the true story of three African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1960s.
The next stage of the science competition included public voting, and the Banneker High School students – Mikayla Sharrieff, India Skinner and Bria Snell, all 17-year-old high school juniors – turned to social media to promote their project.
But while the teens were gaining traction on social media and racking up votes, users on 4chan – an anonymous internet forum where users are known to push hoaxes and spew racist and homophobic comments – were trying to ensure the students wouldn’t win.
The anonymous posters used racial epithets, argued that the students’ project didn’t deserve to be a finalist and said the black community was voting for the teens only because of their race. They urged people to vote against the Banneker trio, and one user offered to put the topic on an internet thread about President Donald Trump to garner more attention. They recommended computer programs that would hack the voting system to give a team of teenage boys a boost.
NASA said in a statement that voting was compromised, prompting it to shut down public voting earlier than expected. The federal space agency said it encourages the use of social media to build support for projects but wrote in a statement Tuesday that public voting was ended because people “attempted to change the vote totals.”
“Unfortunately, it was brought to NASA’s attention yesterday that some members of the public used social media, not to encourage students . . . but to attack a particular student team based on their race and encourage others to disrupt the contest and manipulate the vote, and the attempt to manipulate the vote occurred shortly after those posts,” the NASA statement read.
“NASA continues to support outreach and education for all Americans, and encourages all of our children to reach for the stars.”
The federal agency named eight finalists and said it will announce the winners this month. In addition to the public voting, judges assess the projects to determine the winners, who are invited to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for two days of workshops, with the winning team receiving a $4,000 stipend to cover expenses.
Sharrieff, Skinner and Snell did not talk about the controversies tainting the voting but said in interviews Tuesday that they are excited about the positive attention their project has received from classmates, the D.C. community and even strangers on social media.
Prominent black activists and organizations, including one of the leaders of the Women’s March, helped spread the word about the competition, saying black women are underrepresented in science and that the public should help propel the Banneker students to the top of the competition.
One of Sharrieff’s tweets urging her followers to vote for the project was retweeted more than 2,000 times. And someone even set up an online fundraiser for college scholarships for the teenagers.
“In the STEM field, we are underrepresented,” Sharrieff said, referring to the widely used acronym for the science, technology, engineering and math fields. “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.”
The NASA competition called on students to find creative ways to use space technology in their everyday lives. The teens said they considered dozens of ideas but settled on a water purification system because they noticed some water fountains in their school couldn’t be used because of potential lead contamination.
They worked at the Inclusive Innovation Incubator – a technology lab focused on diversity and entrepreneurship near Howard University – where they volunteer, and their mentor at the incubator encouraged them to compete and supervised them on weekends as they built a prototype.
The teens purchased two jars, placing meters in each to test the purity of the water. In one jar, the teens place shards of copper in the water – with the copper acting as the experimental contaminant. An electric fan spins the water while filtering floss – a type of fiber – collects contaminated particles. Once clean, the water is transferred by a straw into the second jar. The meters verify that the water is clean, and the teens said they trust their system so much, they drank the water.
The filtration system is based on NASA technology used to develop automatic pool purifiers.
“Ours actually shows you that the water you are drinking is clean,” Snell said.
Sharrieff, Snell and Skinner, who are all on the cheerleading team, said they plan to go to college and 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.
“The popular norm is sports and modeling and advertising,” Skinner said. “And for people to see our faces, and see we’re just regular girls, and we want to be scientists.”
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