Your students are probably already familiar with some famous names in STEAM, like Leonardo da Vinci, Marie Curie, Sir Isaac Newton, Thomas Edison, and John Coltrane. But there are many others, past and present, whose work in STEAM may be less familiar to your students. Here are 11 great minds in STEAM to inspire your students and get them excited about science, technology, engineering, art, and math.
1. Shirley Ann Jackson (1946– )
In 1973, Jackson became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and only the second African American woman in the country to earn a Ph.D. in physics. Much of her work has been with the properties of elemental particles. In 1995, she was appointed chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and in 1999, she became president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
2. Avicenna (980–1037)
Avicenna is considered one of the brightest thinkers of the Islamic Golden Age. His medical encyclopedia The Canon of Medicine was still being used as a medical school textbook 600 years after his death. In addition to his work in medicine, he was an influential philosopher and poet.
3. Mario J. Molina (1943– )
Before 1974, cooling systems and many pressurized products like hairspray used chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. But what happens when you spray CFCs into the air? Mexican chemist Mario Molina helped show that they float up, up, up through the atmosphere until they destroy the ozone layer—the atmospheric blanket that protects Earth from radiation. After this discovery, governments cracked down on the use of CFCs, and the ozone layer has started to recover. Molina and his colleagues Paul J. Crutzen and F. Sherwood Rowland shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery.
4. Murasaki Shikibu (circa 973–1014)
If you’ve read about hobbits or kid detectives or any other book of fiction, you can thank Murasaki Shikibu. Her book Tales of Genji is widely considered to be the world’s first novel. Most scholars think she started writing the book just after her husband died. It took her almost a decade to finish! Shikibu’s reputation as a writer earned her a respected position in Japan’s royal court.
5. Emmy Noether (1882–1935)
German mathematician Emmy Noether is remembered for her ability to think about complex things in new ways. For example, she applied her knowledge of algebra to the study of theoretical physics. One thing she showed is that the laws of physics don’t change across space or time. This sounds simple, but the idea, which became known as Noether’s theorem, shows how asteroids tumble in space. Even today, her theorem influences the search for subatomic particles.
6. Ada Lovelace (1815–1852)
Actually the Countess of Lovelace, Ada was the world’s first computer programmer. She used paper punch cards to write instructions to be carried out on a giant mechanical calculator called the Analytical Engine. She imagined what computers could do, even writing that “the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music.”
7. Wang Zhenyi (1768–1797)
Wang Zhenyi is remembered as one of the greatest scholars of China’s Qing dynasty. In one of her innovations, she used a mirror, a lamp, and a round table to prove how lunar eclipses work. She was only 24 when she published a five-volume set of mathematics textbooks.
8. Grace Hopper (1906–1992)
Early computers spoke machine language—the beeps and blips of on-off switches. Grace Hopper taught them to understand human words. In 1954, she oversaw the invention of the programming language FLOW-MATIC, which used statements related to human language to control computers. In 1959, Hopper’s language became the bedrock of another English-like computer language named COBOL. The ability to program computers with words opened the door for millions of computer programmers, and COBOL became the most used computer language of all time.
9. Fazlur Rahman Khan (1929–1982)
Imagine the frame of a building made from toothpicks and marshmallows. Until the work of Fazlur Rahman Khan, that’s how skyscrapers looked (except with steel instead of toothpicks and marshmallows, of course). Now imagine a tube made from a rolled-up piece of paper. With the right materials, this design can be lighter and stronger, and it doesn’t have as much inside space taken up with bars and beams. Khan’s tubular design helped skyscrapers resist the forces of wind and earthquakes and allowed buildings to be taller. From 1973 to 1998, his 110-story Sears Tower (now named the Willis Tower) was the tallest building on Earth.
10. Harriet Powers (1837–1910)
Powers was an enslaved African American woman from Georgia who sewed stories into quilts. Her Bible Quilt (1886) hangs in the National Museum of American History, and her Pictorial Quilt (1898) hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
11. Chien-Shiung Wu (1912–1997)
Chien-Shiung Wu was a physicist who worked on nuclear and particle physics during and after World War II. Rather than working only in her mind or on paper, Chien-Shiung Wu designed experiments to prove or disprove theories in physics. Her work earned her the nickname the “First Lady of Physics.”
For more great minds in STEAM, as well as experiments, activities, and other trivia, check out STEAM In a Jar®.
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