In the NASA-sponsored OPSPARC 2018 science competition, was a team made up of three girls – Bria Snell, Mikayla Sharrieff, and India Skinner – from the Benjamin Banneker Academic High.
This team was the only team to make it to the finals of the Optimus Prime-themed competition that was an all-black and all-female group. The competition was challenging the contestants to “be the spark” and invent “spinoffs” from the NASA technologies that can be used to make everyday use gadget or machinery for the everyday world.
This team came up with the IN3-Incubator program, a concept for purifying lead-contaminated water across public schools by using filtration jars, which filter the water at the same time detecting any pH imbalances.
The girl’s idea made the cut to the eight finalists and the round of public voting. The trio, just like the rest of the teams in the finalist, took to social media to rave-up support and rake in votes in an attempt to win the competition.
Hello Everyone! My name is Mikayla Sharrieff & I am a junior at Banneker HS in D.C. my team and I have been selected as the 2018 NASA OPSPARC Challenge Finalists. Public voting starts today and we need YOUR vote! We are the only team from the east coast & female minority group! pic.twitter.com/b0TRFVyMMC
— mikayla. (@Mmmikaylaaa__) April 23, 2018
The Blavity.com reports that on the day before public voting was about to end, this team has garnered 78% of the votes cast through the public voting system. The girls were quite literally first in line to bag the NASA competition. They would also have won themselves a two-day trip to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland to participate in other science workshops and get a $4,000 stipend for their expenses.
@NASA and @NASAGoddard have some explaining to do with this competition. https://t.co/XatNv9DX2h
Why is it already closed before the time is up? And what happened to their votes!? https://t.co/sOA7OmXPMK
— Olivia D. Knight (@OliveDknight) April 30, 2018
However, the final tally of the votes would not take place as the section on the OPSPARC site where voting was taking place was closed a day early. NASA then explained that “attempts were made to corrupt the public choice voting for grade 9-21.”
Huffington Post further reports that the competition’s public voting system was deliberately sabotaged. The hackers behind the sabotage are from an anonymous Internet forum calling itself the 4chan, and they claimed the all-black and all-girl team did not deserve to reach that far in the competition (the girls had 78% of the votes and on the final stage of the competition) and they only made it that far because of the overwhelming support they were getting from the black community.
In addition to trying to manipulate the system, the 4chan hackers called out to the members of the public (White community) to use certain computer programs to hack the voting system and skew the results in favor of a particular group of teenage boys.
This development prompted NASA to suspend the public voting on April 29 and announced that the top three Public Choice teams under each category of the challenge will be notified on the OPSPARC’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,” explained NASA in a public statement.
— 🖤B R I A (@Bria_marie__) April 30, 2018
NASA went further to announced that they had chosen a different route to identify the winner using a panel of judges, though the organizers of the competition still had accurate results from the public voting system before the hacking attempts. The NASA panel of judges will announce the OPSPARC Challenge winner later this month.
District of Columbia Mayor’s Office comes out to support the girls
The Washington Post reported that upon hearing the news of hackers targeting the all-black and all-girls team at the OPSPARC challenge, the District of Columbia Mayor’s Office came out to publicly condemn the act. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s office announced a $4,000 award to the three girls.
“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,” wrote Mayor Bowser in her weekly newsletter.
However, the three girls did not comment directly on the racial attack being perpetrated against them; they did use the limelight to shade more light on the challenges women pursuing STEM face. They showed it is already extra hard because they were female, and even much harder because they are also from a minority group.
“In the STEM field, we are underrepresented. 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,” said Sharrieff during an interview with the Washington Post.
The girls also said the attack on them only strengthened their resolve to pursue careers in STEM. Sharrieff said she wants to be a biomedical engineer, Skinner wants to be a pediatric surgeon, while Snell wants to be an anesthesiologist.
Campaign to raise funds to sponsor the girls’ STEM pursuit
Another group, the Black Women Who Plan and Create (BWWPC), also came out to support the girls by launching a GoFundMe campaign targeting $20,000 that will go towards helping the three girls reach their goals in the STEM.