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Advice From a Real "Woman of NASA," for Kids Who Dream of Working in Science

The real Hamilton next to the code she wrote for the Apollo mission (L), and Lego’s interpretation of the iconic photo.

The real Hamilton next to the code she wrote for the Apollo mission (L), and Lego’s interpretation of the iconic photo. // NASA

If you don’t already have Lego’s new “Women of NASA” play set, you’d better hustle.

The toy became a massive seller in the 24 hours following its release on Nov. 1, briefly selling out on Amazon. Parents are falling over themselves, rightly so, to expose their girls—and boys—to inspiring role models in a field where women’s participation has been under-recognized, and women and girls’ participation under-encouraged.

The public has known the toy set was coming since March, when Lego announced that the concept, proposed by MIT News deputy editor Maia Weinstock, had risen above other submissions in Lego’s public solicitation of product ideas. It features four women: Mae Jemison and Sally Ride, both astronauts; Margaret Hamilton, software engineer; and the astronomer Nancy Grace Roman. Each figure stands in a tableau featuring their particular scientific focus.

Last year, Hamilton, who is best known for writing the code that brought Apollo 11 to the moon—and widely credited with coining the term “software engineering,” spoke to the science and tech website Futurism about her career in science. She shared some advice for girls who want to enter science, and for their parents. Some of what she said will challenge the current fashion of sending kids to highly focused summer camps or high schools, and the trend of early specialization that’s meant to make college kids more employable:

Regarding one’s education related to any field, I think it is important to bring together what I would call the necessary experiences for both a ‘streetwise and a formal education. From a streetwise perspective, the more jobs a kid has, and the more varied they are, during his or her youth, the better prepared one is for going out into the world. When considering the formal part of a kid’s education, learning subjects like English and other languages, history and STEM [science, technology, engineering and math including logic], including how to use computers…this is important in preparing for all parts of our modern society.

Software engineering related courses are important for all aspects of STEM including that of helping one to become more creative, a better problem solver—including being a good detective and how to understand the world in terms of a system of systems—to learn how to be analytical and objective, about abstraction, and how to think outside of the box. How to learn from your mistakes and turn that into a positive result can also be learned from software engineering related courses. I believe it is also important to learn (or be around) things like music, art, philosophy, linguistics, and math including logic; any of which could help improve one’s being an excellent programmer/problem solver/thinker and to have a more global perspective on things. The ultimate goal would be that of teaching one how to think (design).

Beyond education, Hamilton also talked more broadly about not letting fear stop her from learning or trying something new.

One should not be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t understand,’ or to ask ‘dumb’ questions, since no question is a dumb question. To continue even when things appear to be impossible, even when the so called experts say it is impossible; to stand alone or to be different; and not to be afraid to be wrong or to make and admit mistakes, for only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.

From anyone else, it might sound trite, but not from Hamilton, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, when she was 80. At the time, then-president Barack Obama said that Hamilton “symbolizes that generation of unsung women who helped send humankind into space,” and that “her example speaks of the American spirit of discovery that exists in every little girl and little boy who know that somehow to look beyond the heavens is to look deep within ourselves and to figure out just what is possible.”

By Lila MacLellan Quartz November 3, 2017

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