I showed the film Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII in 3 of my classes for CS Ed Week (although it was a different week due to exams – such the life of education). I had heard good things about the film from several other computer science teachers and thought it would be a great history/cs topic. I also found the website http://www.topsecretrosies.com/ very helpful for resources including a study guide and other reference links. But enough about my decisions, it is the reactions to the film from my students that made this such a worthwhile experience.
The most profound remark occurred while the film was discussing how the women did not get credit for their work and it was showing how a picture was cropped so that it was just the man with the machine and not the women. One of my male students remarked out loud “that’s not fair!” I think he startled himself just as much as some around him because it was an impromptu emotional reaction. After the film this led to several comments about how none of them knew women did so much and why no one else knows about this.
During the film the students had questions to to fill out as well as opinions questions to answer. Here are some of the best comments:
“I don’t get why they stopped and had a family instead of staying in computers”
“Why didn’t they stay in computers if they were doing well?”
“I think it is weird only one stayed in computers”
“Did men take back over all the jobs when the war was over?”
“I didn’t know women started all the programming”
“I think it would be hard to know your calculations killed people”
“Its cool that computers used to be knobs and levers.”
“I didn’t know computers was a name for people”
As you can see many students were surprised and actually upset that the women left computing for family and other opportunities. The students collectively felt if the women started the job and were doing well then they should have stayed with it. Some of them were also struck by the concept that what the women were doing with the calculations led to people being killed in the war. This actually opened up a great conversation about understanding the consequences of your work and actions. We discussed that people can have a far reaching effect when they are programming and it can be anything from bombs dropping to corporations making money, etc. There were several other conversations centered around beginning computing, the people, the machines, and how different it is today. Overall I would say this film had a much further impact that I would have thought. The students learned history that included the women “computers” and also learned about the impact of war, computing, and jobs during that time period.
If you haven’t used this in your classes I would highly suggest it and my best advice would to not preface the film and just let them come to understandings and realizations on their own. You might just be surprised what they say!