Black Teens Face Racism, Hackers in NASA Competition

D.C. mayor awards grant to black teenagers after 4chan users try to rig NASA competition against them

The three girls were one of the eight finalists in the challenge.

It's a disheartening speed bump in the otherwise inspiring story of Mikayla Sharrieff, India Skinner and Bria Snell, three 11th graders at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C. Their project focused on providing clean water in public schools. As such, their idea is to create a sensor that can detect impurities such as chlorine, copper, and bromine, as well as a filtration bottle that can purify and filter the water supply in a continuous cycle. The grand prize is a trip to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. and a $4,000 stipend, according to the contest's website. According to the Washington Post, the girls chose to create a water purification system because some water fountains in their school could not be used because of potential lead contamination.

Advancing to the final round of competition with the Banneker High School trio are teams from Texas, Nevada, and California, as well as one after-school program, responsible for creations like a self-cleaning phone protector; a process for cleaning microalgae and using it for fuel; a more effective cooler for transporting anything, from drinks and condiments, to human organs for transplant; a new method of aeroponic gardening; a film-spray capable of blocking UV rays; and a durable, lightweight, phone-skin case.

NASA supports this kind of community-based effort to encourage students to engage with science, technology, engineering and math and recognises social media as an important tool for that support. Their successes have been getting a lot of attention among black figures on social media. Further, it came to NASA's attention that hackers attempted to manipulate the final results, and encouraged other users to download a particular software that can interfere with the voting.

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However, some users on 4chan attacked them exclusively based on their race evidently so as to ruin their chances of winning the competition.

The anonymous posters used racial slurs, argued that the students' project didn't deserve to be in the finals and said the black community was voting for the teens only due to their race. "While it is true they had awesome community support in the popular public voting, the challenge is focused on the delivery of the scientific exploration ..." Some /pol/ users posted racist insults and urged members to spread the campaign to other 4chan boards.

On Twitter the students have posted NASA's statement on the voting, along with a message thanking people for their support.

NASA was eventually forced to shut down the public voting to maintain the integrity of the competition. 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.

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