Ci5: Rachel Ignotofsky on Illustration as a Tool for Education

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

On April 7, at the fifth ABC Children’s Institute, Rachel Ignotofsky delivered the closing keynote presentation, “Illustration as a Tool for Education: Inspiring Girls to Embrace STEM.”

Ignotofsky is the author and illustrator behind Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, which published last summer, and its companion, I Love Science: A Journal for Self-Discovery and Big Ideas. Ignotofsky’s next project, Women in Sports: 50 Fearless Athletes Who Played to Win, will publish this summer (all Ten Speed Press).

“I like to create illustrations about topics that I think are really interesting and really important,” said Ignotofsky. “I have a passion for two things: scientific literacy and feminism.”

Illustration is one of the most powerful tools when it comes to educating people, said Ignotofsky, who as a child was always drawing but not reading. Due to a condition that gave her headaches when she saw too much text on a page, Ignotofsky said that she didn’t really learn how to read until second grade, when she discovered cartoons and comic books.

Illustrations like the ones she now creates inspired Ignotofsky’s love for learning, and she is using her talent to bring that love of learning to young readers. “I’ve discovered that if you take the time to take dense information and make it accessible and beautiful, all of a sudden you start talking to a whole new audience,” she said. “And then you’ve got them — they start learning, and before they know it they start reading, and they want to read heavier books about the same topic.”

In Women in Science, Ignotofsky details the lives and work of female intellectuals who studied and worked in the fields of math, chemistry, geography, and other areas, including the efforts of women during World War II and the role they took in the space race.

“There’s a lot of reasons why I wanted to make this book but one of the main reasons was Marie Curie,” said Ignotofsky. Many people have heard of the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie, noted Ignotofsky, and scientists like Nicola Tesla, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking are also familiar.

“There are so many women who have made just as much of an important contribution,” said Ignotofsky. “All of these women have changed our world. Why don’t we know their names? How come none of us know who these people are? But you can name probably 10 or 20 male scientists off the top of your head.”

One reason for this is institutionalized sexism, said Ignotofsky. Another is a lack of accessible materials featuring women in these fields. But she hopes that Women in Science is a part of the solution to this problem as well as part of the larger movement to bring the stories of historic women to young readers in entertaining formats.

The women featured in Women in Science are from all different points in history and in a variety of fields. The common theme, however, is that they didn’t take no for an answer. “No matter what the roadblock was — whether it was sexism, racism, classism — they just loved their work so much, they did it for the love of discovery,” said Ignotofsky, “even if no one would know that they did it. With that fire, they changed our world.”

As an example, she pointed to Mary Anning, a poor woman in Victorian England, who studied the fossils she found on the beach and discovered the first complete dinosaur skeletons in the area. But because Anning was a woman, she was not allowed to get an education or to be published. “She landed in obscurity,” said Ignotofsky, “but she actually was the mother of prehistoric paleontology.”

Ignotofsky related the similar story of Lise Meitner, a member of the German scientific community and the first female professor in Germany who did dangerous radiochemistry experiments while working at universities in Berlin prior to World War II. When Meitner fled Germany to escape Hitler, through secret correspondence she continued to work with her partner Otto Hahn on experiments that led to the discovery of nuclear fission. But when Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize, it was without her.

Ignotofsky also told the story of Katherine Johnson, the black mathematician and physicist who grew up at the height of segregation and worked for NASA. Though initially only allowed to do small parts of math equations, Johnson went on to become the leader for calculating trajectory at NASA and was in charge of calculating the first Apollo mission to the moon.

“All of these women need to become household names and we need to do the work at getting them there. Why aren’t they?” asked Ignotofsky. “Institutionalized sexism and lack of accessible materials.”

The total work force in the U.S. is 48 percent female, yet in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), women account for just 24 percent of workers, said Ignotofsky. Fixing this requires shaking up management and power positions, changing how tenure tracks work, and targeting diversity hires to change the infrastructure. But, she added, we also need to change the culture by creating books, movies, and materials that change what’s in the mind’s eye when we think about who and what a scientist is.

Young girls need these stories in order to become more engaged in these fields, and visuals are powerful, said Ignotofsky. “You need stories. We don’t learn about these women in history class. We don’t learn about these women in science class.”

Among the “amazing” initiatives to encourage girls to get interested in the STEM fields are GoldieBlox toys, the national Girls Who Code nonprofit, and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls organization, she said.

In 2015, the #ilooklikeanengineer hashtag challenged stereotypes and inspired thousands of women to share their stories online of their lives as engineers — but also as mothers and as women with different interest and hobbies. “Surprise: Women are multifaceted human beings with lots of interests,” said Ignotofsky. “I know that’s a hard concept for a lot of people to grasp, but isn’t that what being normal really means? Isn’t that what we’re really fighting for, so that people can be seen for who they truly are and not as tropes?”

“We’re strong, we’re independent, and we’re here to win it all,” Ignotofsky concluded. “We all know that there are tremendous problems in this world. We need to make sure that every single person knows that they can be part of those solutions, that no one’s brainpower, no one’s potential, is left to the side. That they’re encouraged and empowered to win and to lead.”