Getting with the Program

American Women and the Invention of Computer Programming
Lesson Prepared By
Elizabeth L. Maurer
Related Exhibit
Grade Level

Winning World War II consumed America in the early 1940s. The Home Front rallied to support the troops as well as the war effort. The war spurred rapid technological development, with women on the forefront. Thousands of women moved into technical positions created by the War Manpower Shortage. This lesson explores the women recruited to set up and program ENIAC, the world’s first electronic computer. Their logic skills and creative problem solving laid a foundation for today’s technological innovation.

This lesson combines science and history to introduce students to technology and innovation. They will learn about electrical circuits and apply that knowledge to computer functions. They will study how gendered job classifications, including computer and programmer, affected women’s work opportunities in the past and influence stereotypes in the present.  


Divide the lesson across three 20-minute class sessions


Hands on activities engage students the basic functions of a computer’s electrical system. They will learn about the mathematical problems that the first computer was developed to solve. Finally, they will explore how the World War II Home Front opened new opportunities for women in employment and innovation.

Students will:

  • Learn about parabolas
  • Learn about electrical circuits and their role in making computers function
  • Explore the history of the first computer and women’s roles as programmers
  • Discuss how perceptions about women’s and men’s jobs first opened up computer programming as a career path for women and then closed it down after the development of personal computers.

This lesson ideally builds upon prior knowledge of electrical circuits. If electrical circuits have not yet been covered, this lesson may also act as an introduction to a circuit lesson.

  • Online exhibit “Getting with the Program” broadcast to the smart board
  • Plastic drinking cups
  • Sling shot
  • Ping pong balls
  • Battery operated holiday light string
  • 60-foot clothesline

Step 1: Discuss women’s educational and employment opportunities prior to World War II.

Project the exhibit onto the smart board and move through the slides, summarizing content for students.

Explain that prior to World War II (1941 to 1945), many women attended college and earned degrees in math and science. However, many women’s job opportunities were limited to “female” professions or entry level positions. School teachers, book keeper, and computer were all considered women’s jobs.

World War II created a demand for more workers in all fields. Not only did men leave jobs for military service, leaving vacancies to fill, the war created new jobs. Women were encouraged to move into the new jobs. One new job that needed to be filled was calculating ballistics trajectories for the Army’s Ordnance Division.

Women learning differential equations at Army Ordnance Dept. World War II

Step 2: Explain parabolas and how projectiles follow a parabolic arc

Advance through to the slide of women learning differential equations.

The Army bought a range of new weapons to fight the war. An artillery is a gun or cannon that fires shells or projectiles. Artillery pieces are differentiated by barrel length and bore size. Different shaped barrels cause the shells to fire at different ranges and velocities. Ordnance needed to calculate how far a shell would go when the barrel was tilted to different angles. Army Ordnance hired large numbers of women mathematicians, many of them former school teachers, to calculate firing tables for each weapon under different conditions.

What is a parabolic curve?

Diagram of three parabolic curves

A parabola is a curve where any point is at an equal distance from a fixed point (the focus), and a fixed straight line (the directrix). Launched objects move along a parabola. A thrown baseball arcs along a parabolic curve.

Draw an X,Y axis on the board and graph a parabola.

Step 3: Demonstrate a parabola

Set up a plastic cup pyramid. Have students cluster opposite the pyramid, behind the shooting line.

Have students take turns launching ping pong balls with the sling shot at the pyramid. Keep track of the launch angles to determine the role of angle of launch to reach the cups. Try setting up the slingshot from various distances to the pyramid to see how the arc changes with distance.

Ask students to describe the shape of the ping pong balls’ arcs. It is a parabolic curve. Brainstorm with students all of the factors that went into the launch.

  • Distance
  • Force
  • Angle
  • Environmental conditions (wind, rain, weather)
  • Curvature of the earth
  • Gravity

Just for fun: Wave a paper fan at the sling shot during launch. Discuss whether wind affects the projectile’s pathway.

The Army Ordnance mathematicians were calculating curves similar to the ping pong balls and recording them on tables.

Note that this is the same concept in the game Angry Birds.

Screen Shot of Angry Birds demonstrating projectile following parabolic curve.

Step 4: Learn about electrical waves and circuits.

Electricity is a form of energy. An electric circuit is a path for transmitting electric current through wires. The electric circuit includes a device such as a battery or generator that gives energy to the charged particles that make up the current. Devices along the pathway like lamps or motors use the electrical current to operate. A circuit must be closed for electricity to flow. Computers use electrical energy to operate as well as to perform operations.

Show students the holiday lights. The circuit consists of a long wire that begins and ends at the battery terminal. When flipped “on”, electricity flow through the circuit and lights the string. When the switch if “off”, electricity stops flowing. In some string, a missing or burned out light interrupts the electrical flow and the string does not turn on. This is the equivalent to a switch being “off”.

A computer operates when electricity flows through its internal circuits. 

Step 5: Demonstrate that electricity flowing along a long pathway  needs boosters to maintain the flow.

Position students around down the hallway. Give student #1 the end of the clothesline and have student #2 hold the opposite end, with some but not much slack between them.

When student #1 pumps the rope, it makes a wave. That is similar to electricity flowing along the circuit. With a long enough rope the, the wave will peter out before it reaches the second student. Pumping the rope more energetically may transfer more energy to the end, but it will do so less efficiently with larger waves.

Electricity moving along a long circuit needs to be boosted. For example, power moving through power lines from the generating plant to the school is periodically boosted or it would never reach the school!

Position student #3 about ten feet from student #1. After #1 begins to pump, #3 will assist the wave by both holding the rope off the floor and shaking it to continue to transmit the wave.

Add a fourth or fifth student along the line to demonstrate that adding relays maintains a constant flow of power or electricity.

Step 6: Discuss the development of the ENIAC

Navigate to the slide titled “Birth of Electronic Computing”. Explain that the ENIAC was the world’s first electronic, digital, general-purpose computer. Though it was under development before World War II, the Ordnance department contracted with the designers to further develop it for the Army. Its job was to take over calculating the firing tables. (Interesting aside, it was also used to calculate equations for the Manhattan Project.)

Move through this section of slides to explain that the computer was a series of machines that were hard-wired together. The wiring paths made an electrical circuit. As electrical pulses traveled along the circuit, the computer “counted” them, which was how it solved equations.

ENIAC computer programmers hard wiring units

Remember the “boosters” along the rope line? Those extra students moving the rope were the human equivalent of vacuum tubes. There was so much wiring inside the ENIAC that it required almost 18,000 vacuum tubes to operate.

Today, program language tells a computer what to do. The ENIAC did not have internal memory. The physical wiring served as the programming. In order to solve a new equation, the operators rewired the computer. This problem was solved in later computer hardware design by the addition of memory, which allows for stored programs to run. The stored program tells the computer which circuits through which to run electrical pulses.

It’s like each problem has to run through its own maze!

Step 7: Discuss how changes in technology changes women’s roles in computer programming

Navigate to the slide titled “Changing Technology Changes Women’s Roles”

Explain that large, room sized computers were standard until the 1980s. Because the first computer programmers were women, programming computers was a common job for women for decades. Women that they may have heard of like Grace Hopper and Dorothy Vaughn (Hidden Figures) built careers as programmers. In fact, 30% of computer program majors in college were women up until the late 1980s.

When the personal computer was introduced in the late 1970s, the image of a computer programmer changed. Movies and television shows created a stereotype of a young, white, male, isolated and socially awkward “geek” writing computer programs. Today, that stereotype still pervades, and only 20% of computer science majors are women.

Percentage of Bachelors Degrees Awarded to Women by Major

Discuss with students what a stereotype is and why that might discourage people who do not fit the stereotype from pursuing computer science.   

Assessment / Homework

There is no homework associated with this lesson.

Future Research / Resources

View the recorded electronic field trip Women Pioneers of Computer Programming for more background information.


Common Core Standards

English Language Arts Standards » Science & Technical Subjects » Grade 6-8

Key Ideas and Details:

Follow precisely a multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks.

Craft and Structure:

Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant to grades 6-8 texts and topics.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

Compare and contrast the information gained from experiments, simulations, video, or multimedia sources with that gained from reading a text on the same topic.