Women Changing the World by Making a Difference in STEM

7 min to read
Two teenage girls working on a science project together

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) occupations are expected to grow three times faster than other occupations over the next decade, creating more than half a million new jobs. Occupations specifically associated with computer science are expected to grow by 15%. The jobs and innovations of the future are based in STEM. 

Yet, the face of STEM remains male-dominated, with women making up only 27% of the STEM workforce.  

Schools across the country and around the world are recognizing the difference women can make in STEM and are developing programs to engage girls in STEM at a young age to spark their interest. As non-profits and colleges create more scholarships for girls in STEM, along with more opportunities for girls to pursue STEM careers, the future of women in STEM is looking brighter.

Every February, the United Nations celebrates the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. To honor the famous women in STEM, along with those who didn’t receive recognition for their groundbreaking work, Connections Academy recognizes these nine women from STEM history, as well as those of the present day, and those who are leading the next generation of women in STEM. 

The Pioneering Women in STEM from History

Today, there is a big push to engage girls in STEM-related careers. Not that long ago, things were very different. Women were often overlooked for STEM positions and even denied the recognition that their male counterparts and research partners received, including Nobel Prize awards. Here are three women pioneers who pursued their passion for STEM despite the obstacles thrown in their way.

1. Katherine Johnson

Born in 1918, Katherine Johnson was just 13 years old when she enrolled in the high school on the campus of the historically black West Virginia State College, where she went on to earn her degree in mathematics. In 1953, Johnson began working at West Area Computing section of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which would later become NASA, and in 1957, became part of the Space Task Group, the organization’s first official foray into space travel. As part of an all-male research team, her computations on trajectory analysis and orbital flight influenced every major space program, including Project Mercury and Apollo 11. In later years, she worked on the Space Shuttle program. In 2015, when she was 97 years old, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  

2. Lise Meitner

Often referred to as the “Mother of Nuclear Power,” Meitner, who was born in 1878 in Austria, researched radioactivity after receiving her doctorate from the University of Vienna. For decades she studied nuclear isomerism and investigated the products of neutron bombardment of uranium. That work led to her and partner Otto Hahn discovering nuclear fission. Hahn received the Noble Prize for Chemistry while Meitner was not recognized for her role. The United States asked Meitner to join the Manhattan Project to develop the nuclear bomb, but she rejected the offer as she didn’t want her work used for war.

3. Grace Hopper

Born in 1906, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was known as the “Queen of Code.” She headed the team that created the first computer language compiler, which led to the development of the COBOL coding language. COBOL was widely used and can still be found in legacy technology today. Hopper worked on the Mark I computer, one of the world’s first computers, during World War II. After the war, she continued her work at Harvard on the Mark II and Mark III computer projects. She famously said, “If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it. It’s much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.” 

Women Making a Difference in STEM Today

While opportunities in STEM continue to grow, there is still a long way to go for women in STEM organizations to be seen as equal. These women are making their mark in STEM fields today and are paving the way for the next generation of women in STEM.

4. Cynthia Breazeal

Dr. Cynthia Breazeal is an associate professor of media arts and sciences at MIT. She also heads MIT’s Personal Robotics Group and is a pioneer in social robotics. For her doctoral dissertation, she developed Kismet, an expressive humanoid robot capable of unscripted, emotionally intuitive interactions with humans. Her research focuses on developing personal robots that are socially intelligent and able to communicate with people, work with humans as peers, and learn from people.

5. Sandra Faber

Dr. Sandra Faber is University Professor Emerita of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of California – Santa Cruz. She was instrumental in the development of the two Keck telescopes, the world’s most powerful optical instruments, located on Maunakea in Hawaii. The development and ongoing operations of those telescopes changed the face of optical astronomy. She also led the team to diagnose the problem with the Hubble Space Telescope’s main optical system, which opened the way to finding a technical fix to salvage that mission. Her research into galaxies, black holes, and dark matter are still used today as the foundations for other scientists studying space.

6. Mary-Claire King

Dr. Marie-Claire King is an American Cancer Society Professor of Medical Genetics and Genome Sciences at the University of Washington. She was the first researcher to determine that 99% of genes found in humans and chimpanzees are common. Her work in genetics led to the discovery of a single gene on chromosome seventeen that plays an important role in breast cancer. That discovery enabled genetic tests to be developed that help women with a family history of breast cancer obtain more information about their predisposition to the disease. She is now researching genetics related to other conditions, including deafness. 

The Women Changing the Face of STEM for Tomorrow

These up-and-coming women in STEM are changing the face of STEM and encouraging their peers to get involved in STEM disciplines, so they can make the discoveries and inventions of tomorrow:

7. Sabina London

Sabina London is a student at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is doing research in neuroscience and immunology. While Sabina was in high school, she founded STEM You Can! to inspire young women to study science by making it accessible and fun. Through STEM You Can!, young women participate in fun, interactive experiments on topics ranging from global warming to space exploration. Today, the program offers 60 summer camps across 15 states.

8. Pooja Chandrashekar

Pooja Chandrashekar is currently working on her MD/MBA at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Business School. When she was in high school, she founded ProjectCSGIRLS, a technology and computer science competition for middle school girls. ProjectCSGIRLS is now an international program, with thousands of girls in 40 states and five countries competing in the program since its inception.

9. Madison Kenney

Madison Kenney is a Connections Academy® student who has a passion for STEM. Madison wants to study mechatronics and worked with Connections Academy staff and teachers to do dual enrollment at a university while she completed her high school coursework. Madison is the founder and team captain of RoboChicks, an award-winning, all-girl high school robotics team. Being enrolled in Connections Academy has given her the flexibility to meet the demands of her robotics schedule. Hear Madison’s story and see how Connections Academy helped her achieve her STEM goals.  

Get Involved with STEM!

To help spark an interest in STEM in your student, try these STEM activities and experiments at home. They can be done with ingredients you have around the house and can supplement online school or homeschool science curriculum.
Find more STEM activities that can be done at home on the Connections Academy Resource Hub.  
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