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Business, Diversity & Inclusion, Entrepreneurs, STEM

Regrettably, This Behavior Isn’t Limited To High School

Haters gonna hate!


Left to Right: India Skinner, Mikayla Sharrieff, and Bria Snell attend Banneker Academic High School in Washington, DC (Photo credits: Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

Today’s post falls under the “I wasn’t going to write this one” category, however, the information surrounding it was hard to ignore. Earlier this week, a news release from NASA and a post on their website indicated that they were notified 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 that was participating in the Optimus Prime Spinoff Promotions and Research Challenge (OPSPARC) based on their race and encouraged others to disrupt the contest and manipulate the vote.

Again, I wasn’t planning to write this post, however, when news of this impropriety emerged, and was picked up immediately by media outlets around the country and internationally, it is difficult for me not to comment on a topic that involves education, STEM, and indirectly, business. Why? For the last 30 years, most of America has been discussing the need for more of our high school and college students to pursue STEM careers and professions. More importantly, the disparity in the numbers of women and persons of color choosing STEM careers and professions is a part of this national discussion.

Students taking part in the competition are required to work individually or in small groups to investigate how NASA and spinoff technology can be used in everyday applications. For the high school group, grades 9 thru 12, eight (8) finalists were chosen. Each finalist is vying for the most public votes. I’m sure that many of the readers of A Bridge for Business & STEM have participated in similar contest were members of the public are encouraged to cast their vote via social media. As an example, I voted for my top Season 14 artists for NBC’s The Voice earlier this week using the official The Voice app and online on the program’s website. Public voting for OPSPARC was scheduled from April 23rd to April 30th.

I’d like to say that what happened next was unthinkable, but really, it isn’t. What happened? Here’s the official statement from NASA that is posted to their website https://opsparc.gsfc.nasa.gov:

On Sunday, April 29, hackers attempted to change the vote totals in the NASA OPSPARC Challenge, so managers of the challenge decided to end public voting to protect the integrity of the results. The challenge team has an accurate record of the voting results prior to the attempted disruption. The top three Public Choice teams in each category will be notified and recognized on the challenge website. In accordance with the judging criteria and voting procedures stated on the OPSPARC website, a panel of NASA Goddard judges will make a final determination of the winners using the published rubrics. 

Before the voting ended, members of the public were using social media to generate support for particular teams in the public voting. NASA supports this kind of community-based effort to encourage students to engage with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and recognizes social media as an important tool for that support. Votes generated this way are legitimate and will be counted. 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.

Suffice it to say that the competition for the coveted prize – winning a trip to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center where they would spend two days working with scientists and astronauts along with a $4,000 stipend – was fierce. According to Newsweek and The Root, the team NASA referred to in its statement consists of three black females – Mikayla Sharrieff, India Skinner and Bria Snell – from Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C.

The hacking scheme involved anonymous and negative post about the team and its work on 4chan. 4chan is an English-language image board website.  Information retrieved from Wikipedia indicates that users generally post anonymously, with the most recent posts appearing above the rest. 4chan is split into various boards with their own specific content and guidelines. The site has been linked to internet subcultures and activism groups, most notably Anonymous, the alt-right and Project Chanology.

Here are two examples of some of the anonymous posts that were listed on 4chan:

  1. The trio’s work does not deserve to be among the finalists, and the African-American community only supported them because of their race.
  2. [I] would consider hacking the voting system to give others, including a team of teenage boys, better odds of winning the competition.

The female team created a water filtration system for students who don’t have access to clean drinking water in public schools. Their final project included a video of the filtration system at work, successfully drawing out impurities in the water to make it cleaner for consumption.

It is unfortunate that hatred and ugliness entered this STEM competition via the public voting process, and especially since votes from members of the public are a secondary part of the score for each finalist. According to a NASA spokesperson: “Public voting does not determine the winners of OPSPARC. The winners are chosen based on their scores from the rubric- which is scored by a panel of NASA judges. Public voting is a secondary factor that the judges may consider when choosing the winners.”

For me, the silver lining in this otherwise dark cloud is that the hacking scheme and yellow journalism that was being disseminated about the female team from Banneker Academic High School was detected early enough to not impact the work of each finalist. It is expected that winners of the competition will be announced sometime in the next few weeks, a NASA Goddard spokesperson told Newsweek.

My message to the three team members and others is this:

Haters gonna hate.

Don’t let people make you bitter.

Let people make you better.


About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.



  1. Pingback: Sorry Meghan, Many Have Said Worse and Kept Their Jobs | BridgeBizSTEM - May 13, 2018

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