The three D.C. high school seniors had a whirlwind of a summer. First, they had a private meeting with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Or was it Microsoft chief Satya Nadella?
They can’t quite remember. But they know they loved it all. Google sent them to Flint, Mich., to distribute clean water. They traveled to Seattle to participate in a computer programming event, and to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. They received fan mail from Girl Scouts. They met black female scientists who offered career advice. Colleges called, swaying them to apply to their campuses. And Lester Holt featured them on “NBC Nightly News.”
Their story tread an all-too-familiar path in our epoch: from inspiring to dismaying and back to inspiring.
“A lot has transpired,” said Bria Snell, one of the high-schoolers.
Mikayla Sharrieff, India Skinner and Snell — all 17 years old and students at Banneker High — were finalists in a prestigious NASA high school competition. The trio were the only all-black, female team to make it that far.
But during the online voting portion of the competition, users on 4chan — an anonymous Internet forum where users are known to push hoaxes and spew racist and homophobic comments — tried to ensure the students wouldn’t win. They hacked the voting system, erasing votes, and told others not to support the teens because of the color of their skin.
A Washington Post article about the incident led politicians, business leaders and scientists to connect with the three students. For the NASA competition, they had developed a method to purify lead-contaminated water in school drinking fountains, and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) awarded them a $4,000 grant to further their invention.
Six months later, the teens — now seniors applying to college — say the encounter with racism left them undeterred. They still plan to be doctors and scientists and know that, as black women in these male-dominated fields, they almost certainly will encounter discrimination again as professionals.
“Looking back at it, in a way, I’m glad I experienced it at such a young age because I’ll know how to handle it when I encounter it again,” Sharrieff said. “I know I’ll hit more bumps in the road and, after experiencing this, I can speak up.”
The teens said the hacking wasn’t completely unexpected. When they posted about their competition on Twitter, some people criticized them. The anonymous posters used racial epithets, argued that the students’ project did not deserve to be a finalist and said the black community was voting for the teens only because of their race.
The students suspected that one of these people could take more drastic measures to thwart their chances. When they saw their vote count in the NASA competition plummet, their fears were confirmed.
“To be told we were at an advantage because of our skin, it was confusing,” Snell said. “Why can’t we just win because we worked hard? It seems they can’t see past the color of our skin.”
“If a panel of NASA judges could see something in our projects, why couldn’t the world see that?” Sharrieff asked.
Ultimately, they won second place. After the attempted hacking of the competition was confirmed, Marissa Jennings — an African American woman and their adviser in the competition — invited the teens to her office to try to unpack what happened but struggled to have the conversation.
“That was a moment I will never forget. Having to tell these 17-year-olds that something that they worked so hard for got stopped dead in its strides,” Jennings said. “At their best, they have to face the world telling them, no, you’re not the best.”
She said the students remained determined and decided they would set an example for girls of color across the country hoping to pursue careers in science. Each time they received an invitation to meet with people or participate in an event, they decided together whether they would attend.
The invitation to meet with DeVos generated the most discussion. The teens said they heard about the controversies surrounding the education secretary and feared she didn’t support young women who were interested in science and who attended the traditional public school system.
But they thought meeting with her was an important opportunity to advocate for science education. They said DeVos appeared genuinely interested in hearing their suggestions about how the country could encourage more female students to get excited about science. DeVos’s office did not respond to an inquiry about the meeting.
“We told her that within public schools, we need more programs for young girls” in science, technology and engineering, Sharrieff said. “We looked at this as an opportunity to say what we need for us and other girls who look like us but won’t have this opportunity.”
The teens are completing the first semester of their senior year at Banneker, a selective high school in the traditional public school system that serves mostly black students. They have applied to their top college choices, which include Spelman College, Northwestern University and Louisiana State University.
Anita Berger, the principal at Banneker, said she was proud of the students for remaining determined in the wake of the racism they encountered in the NASA competition. She said the student body was aware of what happened, and some teachers had discussions about it in their classrooms.
“It opened their eyes to the real adversity in the world,” she said. “It could have taken them down, but they didn’t fall.”
The trio said they are still focused on improving their invention to ensure that children have clean water in school. They received advice from scientists and are using the grant they received from the mayor to update the parts used to build the contraption. They’ve also been more engaged in activism, working to promote science to young girls — especially girls who look like them.
“People are stuck in their own prejudices and in their own heads,” Skinner said. “They can’t see what’s going on in the world. It’s becoming more diverse and inclusive.”