Women’s History Month: Dr. Gladys West

Dr Gladys West - STEM Spotlight
Kimberly Waldbillig
7 Mar
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In March we study, observe and celebrate of the vital role of women in history. This year for Women’s History Month we’re sharing the stories of female role models in their respective fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Meet Dr. Gladys West.Gladys West Mathematician

Download the free poster for your classroom!

by artist Geneva B

Dr. Gladys West is one of a small group of women who did computing for the U.S. military before modern electronic systems were adopted.

One of Dr. West’s pivotal projects was working with an IBM 7030 STRETCH computer (so named because it stretched all of the then known limits in computers) to improve the accuracy of the measurement of satellite data. The machine comprised about ten boxes, each about as big as a refrigerator.

IBM 7030 operator console

Courtesy of the Computer History Museum

“We would come in and sit at our desks and we would logic away, go through all the steps anyone would have to do to solve the mathematical problem.” Then Dr. West would work together with the programmers to run the mathematical functions, but this was hardly ever easy.

So we would come down and watch this big computer churn away. Then you’d get some results. Nine times out of 10 they weren’t completely right, so you had to analyze them and find out what was different to what you expected.

Although we often talk about and visualize planet Earth being a sphere, its surface is actually very bumpy and irregular. Her work helped to deliver calculations for an extremely accurate geoid, a model of the earth that’s used to measure precise surface elevations. This model laid the groundwork for the GPS “Global Positioning System” we use today.

Gladys West - Geoid Model

Photo courtesy of the BBC.

By downloading and sharing this poster, you’ll help raise awareness of the achievements of women like Dr. Gladys West, and hopefully inspire a new generation of women and girls working in and learning about STEM.

Listen to the STEM Role Models podcast on Nevertheless:

Sources:
Air Force Space Command
Computer History Museum
BBC

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