Friday, March 11, 2011

Beautiful Minds: Teaching about Women in the Sciences through Picture Books

March 11 - Today's post provided by Teach with Picture Books

Nothing speaks more loudly than a good role model. As a teacher and a father to two daughters, I absolutely believe that. I therefore love picture books which chronicle the lives of women who, from their very childhoods, proved themselves to be innovative, independent, and incredibly resolute.

Additionally, I believe that picture book biographies serve a universal role in helping students realize that childhood dreams and interests may determine the paths they follow as adults.

Take, for example, Julia Morgan, who as a child loved to build. In her mind, buildings were huge puzzles, and she spent hours seeking to discover how all the pieces fit. Greatly influenced by her engineer father and her cousin Pierre LeBrun, an architect who designed many of Manhattan's stone churches and its first skyscrapers, Julia dreamed of becoming an architect.
The book Julia Morgan Built a Castle, written by Celeste Davidson Mannis and illustrated by Miles Hyman, describes Julia's dogged determination to first enter the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and to then gain acceptance as a competent professional (unlikely for a woman in the early 1900's). Her success in both endeavors is inspiring to read, yet the story doesn't end there.

Morgan was a tireless architect who completed hundreds of projects while simultaneously working on William Randolph Hearst's incredible San Simeon estate (the "castle" of the book's title), which required twenty eight years to complete. In her design, Morgan ingeniously suspended the estate's massive 345,000 gallon Neptune Pool from steel reinforced concrete beams so that it would sway, rather than buckle, during California's frequent earthquakes. A simple narrative and Miles Hyman's glowing, sculpturesque illustrations combine to make this book a satisfying journey through the life of one remarkable woman. 

Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor, written and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully, describes how a curious girl became one of America's most prolific inventors. McCully helps readers see that Mattie's childhood fascination with how common things work (a sled, a kite, a foot warmer) fueled her adolescent desire to improve the way machinery operated. While working in a textile mill at age twelve, for example, Mattie witnesses a serious injury when a rogue shuttle ejects from a loom and strikes a friend in the head. Young Mattie mulls the problem over; her solution, a metal guard, is adopted by all of the factories in Manchester. Injuries from flying shuttles cease immediately.

Mattie's later invention of a machine designed to create flat-bottomed paper bags (yes, those same bags we still use today) revolutionized the industry. Earlier flat bags needed to be held with one hand when packing, and ripped easily when overfilled. When she tries to file her patent for the machine, however, Mattie finds herself in a patent war with a man who most certainly stole her idea just days earlier. Fortunately, Mattie's detailed diagrams and meticulous notes prove her "priority of invention," and from that point forward she pursues a life as a professional inventor. Her obituary refers to her as "the Lady Edison."

Stone Girl, Bone Girl: The Story of Mary Anning, written by Laurence Anholt and illustrated by Sheila Moxley, provides readers with a more personal look at a scientist's childhood. This makes perfect sense in the case of Mary Anning, since she was only twelve when she discovered the fossil of a great sea monster on the coast of England. This ichthyosaur would be just the first of hundreds of rare fossilized animals Anning would uncover over her lifetime.

But the road to her success is not an easy one. At the age of fifteen months, Mary survived a bolt of lightning which killed her nurse and two other girls. Her father, who encouraged her interest in fossils, died when Mary was just a girl. The children who should be her friends teased her, calling out, "Stone Girl, Bone Girl, Out-on-your-own Girl!" Despite these obstacles, Mary Anning pursued her passion for the past, paving the way for other scientists in the field of evolution.

If you dig (pardon the pun) that story, you might also be interested in two other versions of Mary Anning's story. Catherine Brighton's The Fossil Girl: Mary Anning's Dinosaur Discovery tells the story of Mary's discovery through graphic novel format, complete with frames and speech bubbles. Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon, written by Jeannine Atkins with pictures by Michael Dooling, presents a much more mysterious, shrouded England, offering the reader just the slightest glimpse of the actual ichthyosaur. The emphasis is more on Mary's determination to see the job through. Teachers might consider sharing all three versions with students to generate discussion about choices made by writers and illustrators alike.

If you're seeking a book aimed at more independent readers, look no further than Jane Goodall: Researcher Who Champions Chimps, written and illustrated by Mike Venezia. (This book is from Getting to Know the World's Greatest Inventors and Scientists, just one of the excellent biography series created by Venezia).

From her earliest childhood, Jane dreamed of traveling to Africa to study the animals of that continent. Jane's father was a race car driver, often absent from the home scene, so Jane and her mother would spend hours in the garden observing plants, insects, and small mammals. Later, when evacuated from London during the bombings of World War II, Jane spent time exploring the rocky cliffs and pine forests of Bournemouth. She and her friends even formed a nature club, where a favorite pursuit was racing snails. During this time she continued to feed her imagination with tales of Tarzan and Dr. Doolittle.

Eventually Jane traveled to Africa where she met the legendary Dr. Louis Leakey and his wife, Mary. Leakey assigned her the task of observing chimps in a remote area, previously unexplored by human beings. Goodall's discoveries about those creatures amazed even Leakey himself. Jane was one of the first scientists to observe, for example, that chimps created and used tools. Scientists had believed that only humans did this!

Jane Goodall: Researcher Who Champions Chimps differs from the other books listed here in one special way: it introduces students to many standard conventions of nonfiction text: bold words, captions, a glossary, and an index. For that reason, this book would serve as a terrific transitional text to more formal textbooks which students will be seeing as they progress through school.

An equally intrepid yet much less celebrated explorer of Africa is brought to life in Uncommon Traveler: Mary Kingsley in Africa, one of many fascinating biographies written and illustrated by Don Brown. Unlike Jane Goodall, Mary Kingsley experienced a childhood which was by all measures bleak and uninspiring: her mother was constantly bed-ridden, her father was habitually traveling, and her brother was simply absent (sent off to school, although he was younger than Mary). Mary's only companionship were the many books in her father's library, and she devoured them (though how she even learned to read was a mystery).

With the passing of her mother, Mary was finally free of all obligations. Her dream? To explore West Africa. At the time such an enterprise was unthinkable, for West Africa was a land hostile even to its own people. How could a woman, a single woman for that matter, survive? But survive she did. Mary battled crocs, swam with hippos (not intentionally!), tumbled from a ledge through a thatched roof, stumbled into a spike-filled animal trap, was thrown from a canoe, and survived all manner of insects and other discomforts. She not only lived to tell her tale, but to write it as well, in two books which became best sellers. Her collected specimens not only filled her own home, but the showcases of the British Museum of Natural History as well. Mary was thirty when her mother died, and passed away herself at age thirty-eight, yet she lived more in those eight years than most people do in a lifetime!

Discussing the Books

The following questions might prove useful in discussing any of these books with children:
  • What are your interests? How might those interests affect what you choose to do for a living?
  • What is success? How does a person become successful?
  • What kinds of things might create obstacles, or problems, for someone who is trying to pursue their dreams?
  • Did women always have the same opportunities as men? What were some jobs that women were expected to do? What were some jobs reserved for men alone?
  • This book begins by telling us about _____'s childhood. Why do you think the author started there? 
  • Was following her dream difficult? What made it so hard? Who or what may have encouraged her, and convinced her to continue?
  • What is determination? How was it exemplified through _______'s actions?
  • If this woman were alive today, what advice might she give us?
  • Let's look again at the illustrations. How do they help us understand the story better? What information do the illustrations supply that the text doesn't? How did the book's illustrator know what these events looked like?
  • What other information does the author provide?
  • What questions do we still have about ___________?
  • If ___________ were alive today, what would surprise her most about how the world has changed since her time?
  • If we had to give __________ a nickname, what would we choose?
As a follow up activity, students could create a new book jacket for any of these books. You might even consider covering the book's actual cover while reading it aloud, and only uncovering it later once all students have completed their designs. At ReadWriteThink you'll find a nice interactive which explains the elements of a traditional picture book cover, and you can additionally have students create the entire book cover online (or just a cover or back) using the cool interactive Book Cover Creator. (Personally, I might have some parent helpers cut down some brown paper shopping bags, and use the reverse blank sides for the project; this would be a neat homage to Margaret E. Knight).

Online Explorations of Women in Science

Women's Adventures in Science features a cool look at real, live scientists practicing in their fields. Students can choose from Ten Scientists, and each is linked to a kid-friendly site featuring a biography, videos, games, and related links. These biographies are rich, and definitely made for the third grade and above crowd. As a class project, students could be paired and assigned a scientist to research using this site.

You'll also find an Interactive Timeline (1900 to present), which, while not well populated, definitely points out that the number of women in the fields of science has increased dramatically during the last century. The Ask It section allows students to pose their questions about science to real scientists. They can also browse answers to dozens of questions already asked. And, of course, a Games section!

Another terrific site to explore is PBS's very hip SciGirls, which is filled with projects, profiles, and videos featuring women in science. This site is awesome in that it helps students (okay, mostly the girls) realize that they, too, can be scientists, right now! (Note that site features a section which allows girls to interact socially, so standard precautions should be taken to address Internet safety issues). The Teacher's Overview provides a number of different approaches as well as additional resources for using the site.

I personally think a SciGirls Club sounds like a pretty awesome idea for a school or homeschool group, and this site would be a great place to start! Don't forget, though, to inspire your girls with some real-life role models, and those provided in the books I've shared are highly recommended.
Need one more? Cool interactive games to learn about inventions and inventors (including lots of women inventors!) can be found at Inventive Kids. No registration or annoying pop-ups, just easy-to-play games that teach as kids play
Looking for more on- and off-line explorations in science? Check out Exploring Invention with Picture Books at Teach with Picture Books. In addition to the dozen plus sites listed there, be sure to check out some terrific science bios written by author Kathleen Krull, a recent contributor to the Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Blog.

Editor's Note: Keith Schoch is a sixth grade Reading/Language Arts teacher in Bedminster, NJ. In addition to presenting workshops and writing teaching guides, Keith shares practical teaching tips through three blogs: Teach with Picture Books, How to Teach a Novel, and Teaching that Sticks.


  1. Funny, but I've been to Hearst Castle and don't even remember the tour guide mentioning that it was built by a woman! I hope I'm just remembering incorrectly. What an awesome, beautiful structure it is! In any case, great post! Thanks.

  2. I'm sure there are many unsung heroes we haven't heard about, which is one terrific reason for having a blog like this!

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. What a useful and inspiring post! Two new picture books about Jane Goodall, both of which look great, are being published this year, and really there can't be enough about her! And thank you for mentioning Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon. I do think a lot can be learned by comparing picture books and the choices authors and illustrators make, especially when writing about someone like Mary Anning, who didn't go to school beyond age ten, and left almost as much myth as facts. But thank goodness for her fossils!