NASA officials intervened in the agency’s high school competition earlier this week, after racist 4chan trolls targeted three Black teens, in an attempt to stop them from winning. Now, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser is giving those teens a grant to continue their work.
India Skinner, Mikayla Sharrieff, and Bria Snell, 11th grade students at Banneker High School, entered the NASA OPSPARC competition with their ingenious method for purifying lead-contaminated drinking fountain water in their school and others across the district: a simple and cost-effective filter that uses fans and filtering floss to extract metals and other impurities, like chlorine and copper.
“In older structured homes and buildings, lead pipes have been an issue in the media,” the trio — the only all-Black, all-girls team in the competition — explained in a statement last month. “In D.C. they’re currently renovating many public schools. As a result, we have a mission to be a part of the community activism and history in the making. Our water filtration system can help aid in that mission.”
The D.C. mayor’s office announced on Thursday that it would be assisting the students in their challenge, giving them a $4,000 grant “to build on their innovative project.”
“Through their brilliance and passion, Mikayla, India, and Bria are bringing our vision for In3 to life and making our city proud,” Bowser said in a statement, referencing the Inclusive Innovation Incubator, a co-working tech space housed at Howard University, where the three students first developed their idea and where they volunteer once a week.
She added, “Mikayla, India, and Bria are just the type of people and scientists our world needs more of and we are proud to support their dreams.”
The students’ engineering prowess was enough to carry them all the way to the final round of competition last month, along with seven other finalists. It was at that point that the trolls descended.
On 4chan, an anonymous internet forum and white supremacist haven, users were upset that Skinner, Sharrieff, and Snell had advanced to the OPSPARC finals. According to the Washington Post,
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.
3 black D.C. students who faced racist comments when they used social media to encourage voting for them in a NASA competition have been awarded a $4,000 grant https://t.co/fZS1xEgRHl pic.twitter.com/VKAZuL3QxA
— CBS News (@CBSNews) May 4, 2018
The 4chan attack eventually led NASA to intervene, shutting down the public vote early and issuing a statement on the official OPSPARC website, saying that officials had “decided to end public voting to protect the integrity of the results.”
“Before the voting ended, members of the public were using social media to generate support for particular teams in the public voting,” officials wrote. “…Unfortunately, it was brought to NASA’s attention…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, and the attempt to manipulate the vote occurred shortly after those posts. NASA continues to support outreach and education for all Americans, and encourages all of our children to reach for the stars.”
Skinner, Sharrieff, and Snell — who compared themselves to the protagonists of the 2016 film Hidden Figures, which tells the story of the Black female mathematicians working for NASA in the 1960s who calculated flight trajectories for the Apollo 11 mission to the moon — were popular on social media, winning a large portion of the public vote for the water filter system.
“In3’s trio…are proud to have made it to the [final round] on their first attempt, and proud of the thousands of votes they received from you all,” the group wrote in a statement last week. “Words cannot express how enjoyable this academic project has been from start til now. The ladies are extremely satisfied with their showing in their challenge, regardless of any final outcomes.”
The statement noted that the three students had also recently been inducted in the National Honor Society.
Thank you so much for your support ❤️ pic.twitter.com/NVBzyydmbj
— mikayla. (@Mmmikaylaaa__) April 30, 2018
Advancing to the final round of competition with the Banneker High School trio are teams from Texas, Nevada, and California, as well as one after-school program, responsible for creations like a self-cleaning phone protector; a process for cleaning microalgae and using it for fuel; a more effective cooler for transporting anything, from drinks and condiments, to human organs for transplant; a new method of aeroponic gardening; a film-spray capable of blocking UV rays; and a durable, lightweight, phone-skin case. One team also published the results of an experiment that showed extracting ethylene from plants provided more power than solar energy.
The winning team receives an invitation to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where they’ll participate in a two-day behind-the-scenes workshop with NASA scientists and astronauts, as well as a $4,000 stipend to cover their expenses.