Three high school students who were attacked online by racist trolls after making it into the final rounds of a NASA competition, have now been awarded a $4,000 grant by the Mayor of D.C. to continue their work.
With coaching and mentorship from Inclusive Innovation Incubator in Washington—India Skinner, Mikayla Sharrieff, and Bria Snell—all juniors at Benjamin Banneker High School, had developed a method to purify lead-contaminated water in school drinking fountains. Their project made the final rounds of NASA’s Goddard’s Optimus Prime Spinoff Promotion and Research Challenge.
“Hidden Figures in the making,” one of the teens wrote to her coaches and teammates, according to the Washington Post.
The next stage of the competition included public voting, and the three 17-year-olds took to Twitter to garner support and votes. When they began gaining traction on social media and racking up votes, users on 4chan, an internet forum where users can post anonymously, tried to ensure that the all-black, all-female team wouldn’t win, according to the 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.
“Unfortunately, it was brought to NASA’s attention on Monday, April 30, 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,” a statement posted on NASA’s website read.
The federal agency said it is aware of the Banneker group’s use of social media to promote their project and that it “supports this kind of community-based effort to encourage students to engage with science, technology, engineering and math.” NASA said votes that were generated online will be counted.
“In the STEM field, we are underrepresented,” Sharrieff said, referring to the widely used acronym for the science, technology, engineering and math fields. “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.”