‘Science Evangelist’ Brings The Good News of Black Inventors

Kapp Singer | February 6th, 2024

‘Science Evangelist’ Brings The Good News of Black Inventors

Black History Month  |  New Haven Free Public Library

IMG_3319Kids at the “Black Inventors Who Made the Stuff Around Us” workshop at the Ives Main Library on Saturday. Photos Kapp Singer.

Amelia Alford held up a balloon to her ear, feeling the vibration of sound waves in the air. Iva Nwanyanwu looked closely at a bottle of water, wondering if it was possible to remove the sugar dissolved inside. Daniel Zhuta carefully paced around a circle on the floor, measuring its circumference step-by-step before considering if the same could be done to measure the entire earth.

Scientist and educator Ainissa Ramirez taught the workshop “Black Inventors Who Made the Stuff Around Us” during a recent Take Your Child to the Library Day at the Ives Main Library. The event was part of the New Haven Free Public Library’s ongoing Black History Month programming, which includes a series of film screenings with Black actors every Friday of the month, a concert by the students at Music Haven celebrating Black history on Feb. 10, and a discussion about the history of Black-owned businesses in New Haven on Feb. 29, among others. 

“There are so many inventions around us that are made by African Americans,” Ramirez said. “I just wanted kids to have a chance to see them. Something as simple as the blue mailbox—that was created by an African American.”

Ramirez, a self-proclaimed “science evangelist,” previously worked as a materials scientist at Yale University before turning to popular science education in 2012. 

“I enjoyed doing research, but I found it was far more important to get people excited about science,” Ramirez said. 

Since then, she has written three general audience books about science—The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another (2020), Newton’s Football: The Science Behind America’s Game, with Allen St. John (2013), and Save Our Science: How to Inspire a Generation of Scientists (2013). In 2025, she is publishing two children's books about influential Black scientists from Candlewick Press.

On Saturday, kids made paper megaphones—”sound bigger uppers”—before learning about the contributions of James West, an acoustician who invented the electret microphone, a small and efficient type of microphone used widely in mobile devices.




The "sound bigger uppers" (i.e. megaphones) and balloons.

They experimented with solubility and discussed evaporation while hearing about Norbert Rillieux, an early chemical engineer who invented the multiple-effect evaporator, a method for refining sugar via boiling.

Moving from the microscopic to the planetary, Ramirez talked about the work of Gladys West, a mathematician who made significant contributions to geodesy—the science of measuring the earth—and the development of GPS technology.

The day ended with a game of “Black Inventor Bingo” that went on as Ramirez told the stories of Garrett Morgan, who invented an early type of traffic signal; Philip Downing, who created the blue USPS letter box; Lonnie Johnson, the inventor of the super soaker; and New Haven’s own Sarah Boone, who developed the modern ironing board.


IMG_3314IMG_3320Top: Black Inventor Bingo. Bottom: Amelia Alford, 7, with her ice cream cone.

To honor Alfred Cralle, inventor of the ice cream scoop, and McKinley Jones, who improved mobile refrigeration technology, kids made paper ice cream cones.

“We need to highlight Black inventors,” Ramirez said. “When we see a lightbulb we think ‘Edison’—when we see a microphone we need to think ‘Jim West.’”