The three D.C. 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 did not deserve to be a finalist and said that 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 Trump to garner more attention. They recommended computer programs that would hack the voting system to give a team of teenage boys a boost.
“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 — including the Banneker group — 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’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., 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 that 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 teens.
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 could not 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.
See More- Source: Washington Post