Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science: The First Computer Programmer, Orbis Pictus Recommended Title
Written by Diane Stanley, Illustrated by Jessie Hartland
Published by Simon and Schuster
“She was perfect for the job. She understood how the engine worked. She was a good writer. And she had the vision to see, better even than Babbage himself, how much more a computer could do besides just processing numbers.” While this quote may bring to mind a mid-20th century coder in Silicon Valley, the subject is Ada Lovelace, who died at the early age of 36 in 1852. Lovelace, the inquisitive and brilliant daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron and his mathematically-minded wife Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron, was a natural learner who taught herself about the world in order to create and design. While following a traditional life path forged for her by her mother – schooled at home, an arranged marriage, three children – Lovelace still managed to maintain her identity as a mathematician. Her friendship with mathematician and engineer Charles Babbage led to a collaboration on his Analytical Engine; Lovelace wrote the notes explaining the process by which the engine could function. In doing so, she mapped out the process of computer programming over a century before the first computer. Like many women in the history of coding, Lovelace’s work was forgotten. Stanley’s fluid and playful writing, combined with Jessie Hartland’s whimsical gouache paintings, bring Lovelace’s lofty imagination to life. Ideal for inter- and transdisciplinary explorations of imagination and invention, the history of coding, the role of women in coding, and the genre of the picture book biography, Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science has many roles to play in classroom life.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Grades 2 and Up
Inventing. The book begins with Lovelace deciding that it would be fun to fly. First, she conducted her research. Next, she designed and built her wings and considered what she could do once she could fly (deliver mail!). Finally, she documented the process in a book she wrote and illustrated. In an interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary unit, take your students through the same process. Have students identify things they would like to be able to do with the assistance of an original machine. Students can work individually or in pairs or small groups to conduct research. Have a design phase where students must articulate to the classroom committee what they are building and the supplies they need. Have students put together their machines and then, like Lovelace, write and illustrate a book about it to keep in the school or classroom library.
Ada Text Set. Have your students explore both the genre of picture book biography and the life of Ada Lovelace by reading all three picture book biographies published in the past year: Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science: The First Computer Programmer, Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer, and Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine. How are they similar? How do they differ? Support students as they build an understanding of Lovelace is based on all three. How would their understanding of her change if they just read one of the books? How does each book present a slightly different Ada Lovelace? Students might want to choose another scientist or mathematician to research in small groups; each member of the group could write an original picture book biography, and when all are complete, they can compare and contrast the similarities and differences in style, mood, and content across their biographies.
Ada Lovelace Day. Celebrate Ada Lovelace Day at your school, using the resources available on at the Finding Ada website. Invite women from your community with STEM or STEAM-based careers to speak to your class. Or, bring small groups of your students to their workplaces and have them shadow the professionals for the day.
Coding. After reading this biography of Ada Lovelace, have your students explore the history of coding to better understand the connection between the original punchcard of a loom and today’s computers. Work with the computer teacher at your school on a coding project with your students that relates to something else that you are studying in science, math, or social studies, or something that would be a contribution to your school community, using resources like Tynker, Code.org, or Scratch.
The Industrial Revolution and the Digital Age. Lovelace grew up as an “industrial native,’ while your students are growing up as ‘digital natives.” What are some of the similarities and differences between these two time periods historically? From a scientific standpoint, how are the same questions being asked and answered? From a social standpoint, how are the same challenges of skilled labor and environmental safety and regulation being addressed? In exploring both the 19th century and the 20th-21st, you might want to have some students in your class become experts on one, and use this as an opportunity to have students learn from one another. Or, you could specifically juxtapose texts within a text set that allow students to consider the same questions within each age of invention. As a culminating assignment, students could create a set of guidelines for the federal government to follow to ensure the safety of both people and planet.
Grades 4 and Up
“Dangerous Signs of Too Much Imagination.” Ada Lovelace’s mother really did worry about her daughter’s imagination. Stanley writes: “Ada’s mother wanted her to be calm and rational, not emotional and creative like her father. She hoped the study of math and science would suppress her daughter’s imagination. So Lovelace was given a world-class scientific education.” But is science devoid of imagination? Can you be imaginative and rational at the same time? Why or why not? Have your students do some research on imagination, perhaps comparing this quote to Einstein’s belief that “[i]magination is more important than knowledge.” Have students interview in-class or via Skype professionals in the fields that involve science and math and/or those who do research in math and science at a local university. How do they draw upon their imaginations? Next, bring in local artists such as fiction writers, poets, painters, sculptors, and designers. How do they draw upon their skills of reason and knowledge of math and science to do their work? Students can write letters to Lovelace’s mother as a way to synthesize their initial thinking on this dichotomy-that-may-not-really-be-a-dichotomy.
Why was Lord Byron Dangerous? If your students are curious as to why Lord Byron’s wife thought he was so dangerous, share some of the digital and print resources below, and some of his poetry. Some of this material may not be appropriate for students in the elementary grades. Have students create a fictional conversation between Lovelace’s parents. What would they both want for her?
Women in STEM. Why are there so few women in STEM professions? After reading Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science, watch the movie Hidden Figures. What questions do your students have about the role of women in STEM from the 19th to the 21st century? Have your students explore some of the digital resources listed below on the history of women in coding. Using that as a starting point, students can explore other areas of science, technology, and engineering to uncover statistics about women in the profession and some of the reasons why they may or may not be increasing in number in these fields. You may want to invite men and women from your community involved in STEM-careers to speak to your students in small groups as part of the research process. You may also want to have admissions representatives from a local college or university talk about how they recruit women for STEM-related majors. Using their research, have students create a Women in STEM Action Plan for their generation. What needs to happen and why? How do K-12 schools need to change? How do colleges and universities need to change? What needs to happen in the workforce? In society at large? Students can share their plans with your local school board and administration as well as the representatives of local colleges, universities, and STEM industries.
Diane Stanley’s Official Website
Jessie Hartland’s Official Website
Full text of Sketch of the Analytical Engine by Charles Babbage, Notes by Ada Lovelace
Demonstration Model of Babbage’s Difference Engine #2, London Science Museum
“On Poetical Science,” The Never Ending Search, SLJ Blog Network
Resources on Ada Lovelace
“Ada Lovelace, The First Tech Visionary,” The New Yorker
Ada Lovelace, Computer History Museum
“Ten Things You May Not Know About Ada Lovelace”
Ada Lovelace Letters, BBC News
Primary Sources in Science Classrooms: Computer Science and Programming with Punched Cards, Library of Congress
Resources on Lord Byron
Lord Byron, Poetry Foundation
Lord Byron, BBC
Lord Byron, The Academy of Poets
Women in Coding
Girls Who Code
“When Women Stopped Coding,” NPR
Why are there so Few Women in Computing?” BBC News
“The Forgotten Female Programmers Who Created Modern Tech,” NPR
“How to Get Girls Into Coding,” Op-Ed, The New York Times
“As Women Take Over a Male-Dominated Field, the Pay Drops,” The Upshot, The New York Times
Resources on the History of the Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution, The British Library
The Industrial Revolution, Teacher’s Guide, Library of Congress
The Rise of Industrial America, Library of Congress
The Industrial Revolution, Gilder-Lehrman Collection
Lowell National Historic Park, U.S. National Parks Service
The Clean Air Act, EPA
The Clean Water Act, EPA
Resources on the History of the Digital Age
Computer History Museum
Computer History Timeline, Live Science
“A Brief History of the Computer,” Time Magazine
“Tracking the Digital Revolution from Pong to Gravity,” The New York Times
“Embedded on the Front Lines of the Digital Revolution,” The New York Times
“Data Centers Waste Vast Amounts of Energy, Belying Industry Image,” The New York Times
“After Dump, What Happens to Electronic Waste?” NPR http://www.npr.org/2010/12/21/132204954/after-dump-what-happens-to-electronic-waste
Robinson, F. (2016). Ada’s ideas: The story of Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer
programmer. New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers.
Stratford, J. (2015). The case of the missing moonstone. [The Wollestonecraft Detective Agency
series.] New York: Knopf.
Wallmark, L. (2015). Ada Byron Lovelace and the thinking machine. Ill. by A. Chu. Berkeley, CA:
About Mary Ann Cappiello
Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.
SLJ Blog Network