LeAnn Erickson, film professor at Temple University and documentary filmmaker, released “Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII,” in 2010. The film’s success — it’s now in more than 1,000 high schools, libraries, and universities internationally — prompted Erickson to tour and screen it on a grant from the American Association of University Women.
“Two things kept happening,” Erickson said. “First, so many technical women came up to me and said, ‘I wish I had heard about this when I was young, because back then I always thought I was weird to like math.’ Second, there were so many others who said, ‘I wanted to study math but didn’t because I didn’t think girls could.’”
Erickson realized her film needed to reach a younger audience, and had the makings of a potent teaching tool. “You have to get — and keep — girls interested in STEM at a young age,” she said. “If you don’t, it’s hard to make up that ground later.”
So Erickson returned to her archives of film and radio clips, photographs and documents from personal collections, and her transcripts from one-on-one interviews (among them, Jean Bartik, Marlyn Wescoff, and Joseph Chapline, who worked with John Mauchly at the University of Pennsylvania) to make something new.
“Top Secret Rosies is a feature-length documentary, and wasn’t right for kids,” Erickson said. “So I developed an e-book that would be an adventure story, almost as if you’d stumbled on a girl’s diary and began reading about the cool things these teenage girls did in WWII. I even made original video clips that wrote them back into the history, of course, tagged as ‘video created to mimic a 1940s newsreel.’”
The result is The Computer Wore Heels, an interactive e-book. With a clear, relatable narrative that invites girls to immerse themselves in the story, it also allows them to jump out and explore a wealth of video clips and resources whenever they want to learn more. The book is augmented by Erickson’s extensive teachers guide, which applies to multiple grade levels. “Social studies, history, math, computers, this e-book can be used on so many different levels across the curriculum for young adults,” Erickson said.
“Some of the women who worked on the differential analyzer and, later, ENIAC, weren’t that much older than the girls who will read this e-book,” she continued. “I want to show them, in an authentic way, what young women in STEM were able to do at a pivotal moment in history.”
The Computer Wore Heels received the MEDEA Awards distinction of Highly Recommended (Brussels, Belgium). It’s available to download for free here.