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Exploring the History of Women in STEM with Primary Sources

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This post is written by Amara Alexander, the 2019-20 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress. Danna Bell also contributed to the post.

Women have been involved in STEM careers for many, many years. Amelia Earhart flew across the world. Mae Jemison launched into space. Margaret Hamilton developed software. Each woman successfully pioneered her own path into a career dominated by men and left a legacy for future generations to remember and surpass.

How do we explore the experiences of women in STEM fields? One way is through the use of primary sources. Using Library of Congress primary sources can help students analyze the ways in which women in STEM have been depicted and gain a sense of the world in which they worked. Some students might even be inspired to consider STEM careers themselves!

Woman Scientist

Use the Library’s primary source analysis tool and selected questions from the Teacher’s Guide: Analyzing Photographs and Prints to help students observe details, reflect on the image, and ask questions. In these photographs from the early 20th century, students can study the tools and equipment within the lab, and the actions of the scientist, students, and teachers.

First, present students with this image of a woman scientist. Allow time for them to examine the photograph, and then deepen their engagement by asking:

  • What do you notice first?
  • What do you think is the purpose of the scientist’s investigation?
  • What surprises you?
  • What information can you gather from this image?
  • What do you see that suggests whether this is a candid photograph or a posed one?
  • What do you wonder about the image?

Then, divide the class into pairs or small groups and present students with one or both of these classroom images.

Washington, D.C. Science class in a Negro high school. Marjory Collins, 1942

Group of young women performing atmospheric pressure experiments while studying science in normal school

Ask the following questions to engage students with the images:

  • What do you notice first?
  • What is the purpose of the students’ investigation?
  • What surprises you?
  • What are the other students doing?
  • What information can you gather from this image?
  • How does the class differ or have similarities to your class?
  • What is the teacher doing?
  • What do you see that suggests that this is a candid photograph or a posed one?
  • What do you wonder about this image?

Compare and contrast the images using a graphic organizer. In addition, students can select an image to create a poem, write thought bubbles on the picture, or devise a story about the young scientists featured in the images.

Want to help students learn more about women in STEM fields? Enhance your activities featuring primary sources from the Library’s online collection. In addition, the Library’s Science and Technology Reading Room has created a guide to resources about women in science. Explore the reference guide on engaging girls in science and the list of biographies on women in science.

How are you inspiring girls to consider a career in STEM? Let us know in the comments.



  1. I am a Certified STEM Instructor. I teach Middle School African-American students and I am going to use this website as part of my curriculum.

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