Canned Goods: STEM Statues: Figuring Female Inventors into Public Art

by Christine Brovelli-O’Brien, STEAM Educator at STEM Read

“Hey, do you know who this woman was?”

This is the question that Kate Hannigan, author of The Detective’s Assistant and the Cape series, asks everyone around her when she’s discovered an important female figure in history. And it’s a darn good question to ask because many people do not know these women or their contributions to society. Why are they hidden in history? Where are their stories?

Kate Hannigan
Author Kate Hannigan

If asked to name a female inventor, says Hannigan, Madame Marie Curie usually is the first name that comes to mind; after all, Mme. Curie did win two Nobel Prizes, one in physics and one in chemistry, for her research on radioactivity. She is well honored around the world, as she should be, but what about the rest of them? Is a concrete slab in front of the Illinois home where Josephine Cochrane invented the dishwasher really enough to honor this game-changing woman?

“History has a beating heart,” Kate Hanningan tells STEM Read Director Gillian King-Cargile and Melanie Koss, associate professor in the NIU Department of Curriculum and Instruction and STEM Read Contributor, in the recent STEM Read podcast episode “LARPING and Learning.” Listen to an excerpt from the episode:

Kate Hannigan is working to document the lives and discoveries of female historical figures in her books, but she’s also pushing for more female representation in public art. She worked with WBEZ’s Curious City to investigate why there were so few female statues in the city of Chicago. As late as 2018, the city had over 40 statues of men and dozens of statues of cows, but only one statue of a woman.

Listen to Curious City’s episode “She Should Be Here” featuring Kate Hannigan here.

The arts are an effective way to give life to the important women in STEM history. And what better way to honor history than with a super cool art installation? Creating art is shown (scientifically proven, in fact) to increase visual learning, to enhance motor skill dexterity, to improve decision-making, and to strengthen critical thinking skills.  

So here’s the challenge, have your students research a female scientific inventor and then create an artistic representation of the inventor that could be displayed as a public monument. In addition to honoring a female scientist, this activity highlights the relationship between STEAM concepts.

  1. Ask students to choose a female scientific inventor (who’s not Marie Curie) who they believe needs to be honored for her work.
  2. Have students come up with driving questions for their research: What did this woman invent? Why did she invent it? Why should she be honored for it?
  3. Once students have enough facts about their female inventor, they should design and create a model of a public monument, such as a statue or a building or a sculpture, that honors this woman. Students can create their model statue using the traditional or digital medium of their choice.
  4. Ask students to think about how their design aesthetic (modern, abstract, classic, realism, serious, playful) and choice of materials (bronze, copper, brass, stone, clay, wood, glass, fiber, marble) contribute to the meaning and feeling the statue should convey.
  5. Have students present their designs to the class and discuss their reflections:
  • Why did you choose this female inventor?
  • Why does she deserve to be honored?
  • Where should your monument be displayed and why?
  • What were your driving research questions and why?  
  • What type of design did you choose and why? 
  • What type of materials did you choose and why?
  • What reactions do you hope to receive from your audience? 
  • How do your design and materials help achieve these reactions?

For Educators

This activity meets the following state standards for grade 5 – 8
Social Sciences:

  •  SS.IS.1.3-5: Develop essential questions and explain the importance of the questions to self and others.
  • SS.IS.4.3-5.: Gather relevant information and distinguish among fact and opinion to determine credibility of multiple sources.
  • SS.IS.1.6-8: Create essential questions to help guide inquiry about a topic.
  • SS.IS.2.6-8: Ask essential and focusing questions that will lead to independent research.


  • W.5-8.10: Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Media Arts 

  • MA:Cr2.1.5: Develop, present, and experiment with ideas, plans, models, and proposals for media arts productions, considering the artistic goals and audience.
  • MA:Cn10.1.5: b. Examine and show how media artworks form meanings, situations, and cultural experiences.
  • MA:Cr1.1.6 a. Formulate variations of goals and solutions for media artworks by practicing chosen creative generative methods (for example, sketching, improvising, brainstorming).
  • MA:Cr2.1.6 b. Organize, propose, and evaluate artistic ideas, plans, prototypes, and production processes for media arts productions, considering purposeful intent.
  • MA:Cr1-2.7-8 Anchor Standard 1: Generate and Conceptualize artistic ideas and work. Anchor Standard 2: Organize and develop artistic ideas and work.