State Humanities and the History of Science

State Humanities and the History of Science

Dr. Mary Ellen LennonGirls Inc. of Johnson County, Indiana recently named Mary Ellen Lennon, assistant professor of history at Marian University in Indianapolis, Indiana as their “Strong, Smart and Bold Woman of the Year.” The award recognizes Dr. Lennon’s work on a Quantum Leap-funded project to celebrate the history of women in science.

Quantum Leap was an initiative instituted by the Indiana Humanities Council in order to encourage Hoosiers to explore and celebrate the spirit of possibility and problem-solving by bridging the humanities and STEM fields. The basic idea was to train a humanities lens on various local and global STEM issues in discussions around topics as diverse as the ethics surrounding new technologies, how and why people accept and embrace change (or fail to do so) and how we distinguish between fact and myth or opinion. To this end the initiative has funded a variety of projects within the state and as a good Hoosier, our own Jay Malone served as a reviewer to decide which projects were worthy of funding by the program. Girls Inc. Johnson County, the local chapter of a national nonprofit youth organization dedicated to helping young girls believe in and realize their potential through innovative programs to help them confront societal expectations and stereotypes, received a Quantum Leap award in 2017.

Strong, smart and bold are certainly fitting adjectives for Lennon who directed the project. She took young women on field trips to learn about and be inspired by historic women in science, such as Rachel Carson and Wangari Maathai of Kenya, who suffered imprisonment in her efforts to lead a movement of women to plant 50 million trees. Lennon paints a vivid picture of taking girls to do field research at the Blossom Hollow Nature Preserve in Trafalgar, Indiana. “Imagine,” she writes, “Yellow buses perched on the edge of the nature preserve. Armed with waterproof notebooks and rain ponchos, groups of girls, divided by age, followed Dr. Alice Heikens [a biology professor at Franklin College in Indiana] into the woods to find out what they could about the natural world…. The girls were introduced to a lineage of female naturalists and scientists who walked into the woods before them. They studied women throughout history who challenged their communities’ formal discrimination of women, who demonstrated, despite prejudice, the importance of their voices, their scientific knowledge and their imaginations.”

Lennon’s own story in education is no less inspiring. A native of Queens, New York, she was the first member of her family to graduate from college, the State University of New York at Binghamton. She won a Jacob Javits National Fellowship to attend Harvard University and went on to earn a PhD in American Studies, specializing in issues of race, class and culture in twentieth century United States history. Committed to the ideals of equity in education, she first taught at an experimental public high school in New York City whose mission was to serve students at risk of not completing postsecondary education due to their economic or family situations, and later, as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso in West Africa.

It is entirely appropriate that she should be recognized for her efforts to wed the sciences and the humanities. Congratulations to Dr. Lennon.

[We are grateful to George Hanlin, Director of Grants of the Indiana Humanities Council, and to Dr. Lennon for allowing us to quote from their articles.]