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Updated 11:00 AM March 1, 2004



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Spotlight: Engineering history through kids' books

Debbie Taylor, director of the Women in Engineering Office, combines her experiences in science and engineering with historical figures to teach children about the past.

Taylor, the assistant director of the Women in Science and Engineering Program, is the author of children's books that tell the story of accomplished people from history.
Taylor (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

"I think sometimes children are getting lots of misinformation from other forms of media, and generally with books you get a better quality of information because so much effort goes into it," Taylor says.

She is working with colleague Cinda-Sue Davis on a story about two U-M women—the late botany professor Elzada Clover and her student Lois Jotter, who made history when they studied plant life along the Colorado River in 1938.

"There are a number of people, especially engineers and scientists, who accomplished so much and contributed so much to the quality of life internationally, yet few children or adults know about them," Taylor says.

Taylor's first published book, "Sweet Music in Harlem," from Lee and Low Books, will debut in May. A famous 1958 photograph by Art Kane depicting dozens of famous jazz musicians inspired the story. The picture is on the wall behind Taylor in the accompanying photograph. She tried, in her words, "to imagine what a child might have thought of such a gathering," and the story grew from there.

Another story, "Slip Through the Dark Woods," is about the experience of a slave girl. It was inspired by a "behind-the-scenes" tour of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Taylor researched bills of sale for actual slaves, read slave narratives and planted a medicinal herb garden, all to bring accuracy to her story, she says.

This spring, the Women in Science and Engineering Program, along with the Michigan Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and the Exhibit Museum, will co-sponsor a traveling exhibit from the Association of Science and Technology Centers, featuring the top 40 children's science books published this year. The exhibit will be displayed at the Ann Arbor Book Festival, April 22-25.

Taylor has been involved with women and children in engineering and the sciences for more than eight years, and she uses this experience as well as African American history to write her books. With a love of reading, her education at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland State University, and her interest in literacy, writing children's books was a natural decision.

"Talking about unsung heroes is really important because many times heroes are ordinary people who have risen to the occasion, and the more often students understand this, the more often they will rise to the occasion," Taylor says. "I love telling a good story, and I will probably never write a story with an unhappy ending."

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