By Mary Ann Cappiello & Donna Sabis Burns, on behalf of the Biography Clearinghouse
“Do the best you can and search out available knowledge and build on it,” said Mary Golda Ross in April 2008. This quote introduces and frames Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer, Cherokee author Traci Sorell’s and Métis illustrator Natasha Donovan’s 2021 picture book biography featured this month on The Biography Clearinghouse.
Known as “Gold” to her family, Mary Golda Ross was a pioneer in multiple ways. A trained mathematician and educator-turned-engineer, she was the first female and the first Native American aerospace engineer in the United States. Mary’s intellect and penchant for problem-solving were invaluable as she helped research and design satellites, missiles, and rockets. Her work, much of which is still classified, was integral to the U.S. development of its aerospace program in the mid-20th century. Like many women entering traditionally male-dominated fields, Mary is considered a “Hidden Figure.” Fortified by her independence and tenacity, Mary carved out historical and professional space that had rarely—if ever—included women and minorities. And in doing so, Mary helped revolutionize our relationship with space.
Independent and tenacious, Mary was the great-great-grandaughter of John Ross, the Cherokee Chief who led his people during and after they were forced to abandon their ancestral lands in the Southeast. Their migration to what is now Oklahoma, is known as the Trail of Tears.
Throughout her career, Mary relied on her Cherokee values for guidance, and she credited her professional success to those values. Sorell uses these values to “bookend” Mary’s story. On the first opening spread, a red box catches the reader’s attention. Within it, Sorell informs the reader that Cherokee values are not written down, but rather passed down through generations of family members. The core values that shaped Mary’s life were “gaining skills in all areas of life (both within and out of the classroom), working collaboratively with others, remaining humble when others recognize your talents, and helping ensure equal education and opportunity for all” (p.2). These values ground the reader and serve as a preview to Mary’s life. At the conclusion of the book, Sorell returns to those values, offering readers the four values in the Cherokee syllabary, a transliteration, pronunciation, and then finally, English translation.
Illustrator Natasha Donovan visually moves the reader through Mary’s life with a series of shifting images digitally rendered, ranging from close-ups of Mary’s classrooms to a bird’s eye view of her travels, zooming out to the larger vistas within her mind as she imagined and designed, zooming in on the many hands around a table working collaboratively to bring these inventions into existence. The illustrations highlight the tensions and opportunities that Mary encounters, and the role she played in an emerging field.
Mary’s unique circumstances prompted her to reach out and mentor many women in science and mathematics across her long career. She traveled to high schools to mentor college bound seniors and advocate education in engineering and mathematics, and also advocated for career opportunities for fellow Native American and Alaska Natives. Across her career, Mary worked closely with so many - from scientists working in secret on cutting edge technology to young adults just beginning to build their professional identities.
So far, 2021 has shown us the power and potential of science, from the COVID-19 vaccines that continue to be distributed across the globe to the ever-changing understanding of the virus’ variants. Scientists have modeled the ways in which their work is always collaborative. In contrast, 2021 has also shown us the power of the extremely wealthy to appropriate science and technology that has been developed for the benefit of the nation. The two richest men in the world, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, turned space travel into their personal pleasure. Was that part of Mary’s vision of interplanetary travel? Or was hers something more equitable, more in line with her Cherokee values of inclusivity and work for the common good?
From the first pages of the book to the last, author Traci Sorell affirms the significance of Cherokee values in Mary Golda Ross’s life. We discuss this in our interview with Traci and refer both to the red box that names Cherokee values on the verso page, as well as the information on Cherokee values in the backmatter. After reading Classified, ask students to share their understanding of what the word “values” means. Then ask students to share their understanding of the Cherokee values that are represented in the book. How do they define them in their own words? Next, ask students to make a list of the values that are important to them. Provide them with an opportunity to talk to one another in pairs or small groups about their values. How are their values similar and different from one another? How are the words they use to describe their values similar and different from one another? After they’ve had a chance to do this, allow them time to consider where their values come from. Are they influenced by the grown-ups in their lives? Their community? Their religion? Are their values influenced by their family cultural heritage(s), race, or ethnicity(ies)? How do their education influence their values, and how do their values influence their education? Finally, ask students to look again at the four Cherokee values discussed in the back matter. What connections do students see between the values discussed in their group and the Cherokee values that guided Mary’s life?
Mary Golda Ross was known for the mentoring work she did, supporting younger women and indigenous women entering the field of STEM. What kind of mentoring exists in your school? In the lives of your students and their families? In your community?
The Space Race as Collaboration
As an aerospace engineer, Mary Golda Ross worked on the top-secret Skunk Works Project of Lockheed Martin. As Sorell writes in Classified, Skunk Works research contributed to the Apollo space missions and the eventual moon walk by U.S. astronauts in 1969. You can show students an example of her work: Planetary Flight Handbook, No. 9, NASA. What other women were involved in Space Race research? After reading Classified, provide time for students to explore these other books about the Space Race.
In Classified, Sorrell notes that “whenever Mary received awards, she always thanked her colleagues because she knew no one person deserved credit for what everyone had done together.” As students explore whichever permutation of texts you select, ask them to consider the ways in which teamwork is represented. In what ways are individuals featured? In what ways is their collective and collaborative work represented? Use this conversation as an opportunity to discuss the process of “doing science” as collaborative rather than singular work. This can also serve as a springboard to critical considerations regarding the ways inventions and scientific breakthroughs are often attributed to specific individuals instead of to the team as a whole, changing our understanding of what makes change possible. Change happens when groups of people work together over time.
To see more classroom possibilities and helpful resources connected to Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer, visit The Biography Clearinghouse. Additionally, we’d love to hear how the interview and these ideas inspired you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your connections, creations, and questions.
Mary Ann Cappiello teaches courses in children’s literature and literacy methods at Lesley University, blogs about teaching with children’s literature at The Classroom Bookshelf, a School Library Journal blog, and is a former chair of NCTE’s Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction K-8.
Donna Sabis-Burns, Ph.D., an enrolled citizen of the Upper Mohawk-Turtle Clan, is a Group Leader in the Office of Indian Education at the U.S. Department of Education* in Washington, D.C. She is a Board Member (2020-2022) with the Children's Literature Assembly, Co-Chair of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity Committee, and Co-Chair of the 2021 CLA Breakfast meeting (NCTE).
*The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the U.S. Department of Education. No official endorsement by the U.S. Department of Education of any product, commodity, service, or enterprise mentioned herein is intended or should be inferred.
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