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Following in Katherine Johnson's Footsteps

Updated on January 26, 2017

Katherine G. Johnson

Katherine Johnson, mathematician
Katherine Johnson, mathematician | Source


Engaging girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is easier than it used to be. Just take them -- and the boys, too -- to the movie theater to see Hidden Figures. Hidden Figures tells the story of three American role models in STEM: mathematician Katherine Johnson, engineer Mary Jackson, and computer programmer Dorothy Vaughn.

Katherine Johnson (born 1918) was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama for her contributions to the space program. She worked at NASA for 33 years, working on Alan Shepard's Friendship 7, John Glenn's Freedom 7, Apollo 11, the Space Shuttle, and the Earth Resources Satellite.

Mary Jackson (1921 - 2005) was NASA's first female African-American engineer. She later became NASA's Federal Women’s Program Manager, where she "worked hard to impact the hiring and promotion of the next generation of all of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers, and scientists" regardless of color.

Dorothy Vaughn (1910 - 2008) was NASA's first African-American manager. She was a mathematician, a computer programmer, and a skilled personnel manager, with a knack for knowing the right woman for the right job.


Why Should Girls Be Interested In STEM?

"We have to do something like this to get them interested in science. Sometimes they are not aware of the number of Black scientists, and don't even know of the career opportunities until it is too late." Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson, Engineer and Mathematician

Mary Jackson, engineer
Mary Jackson, engineer | Source

Role Models and Representation

Girls need to know that science is a viable option for them, that women can do well at science and have done well in science. Many science books mention Marie Curie in passing as a token female, but ignore the many other female scientists, mathematicians, and scholars throughout history, from Hypatia of Alexandria to St. Hildegard to Maria Agnesi to Maria Mitchell to Caroline Herschel and her contemporary Mary Somerville up to modern day STEM women like Grace Hopper, Ellen Ochoa, and Mae Jemison. Role models are important. Role models let students know the variety of options open to them. By including biographies of women scientists, mathematicians, and engineers in a reading class or mentioning scholars of the past in a science class, teachers can easily work role models into a lesson. Parents, when discussing their personal heroes, can mention Serena Auñón as well as Roberto Clemente, Ada Lovelace as well as Theodore Roosevelt.

Female Mathematicians

Hypatia of Alexandria, died 415 AD
Hypatia of Alexandria, died 415 AD
St. Hildegard of Bingen, 1098 -1179
St. Hildegard of Bingen, 1098 -1179
Caroline Herschel, 1750-1848
Caroline Herschel, 1750-1848
Mary Somerville, 1780-1872
Mary Somerville, 1780-1872

Gender Stereotypes

It is the second decade of the 21st century, and gender stereotypes still influence perceptions about the ability of females to handle science, technology, and mathematics. One has only to read the website Not Always Right to find multiple incidents of people assuming girls don't play any video games beyond Barbie or My Little Pony. Boys and girls both need to be exposed to science and technology. They need to be encouraged to explore technology, and they need to be taught to take it for granted that both males and females can excel at STEM.

Katherine Johnson, Winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Why Do We Need To Engage Girls In STEM Classes And Hobbies?

Why do we need to engage girls in STEM classes and hobbies?

"We simply cannot, as a nation, expect to maintain our run of ingenuity and innovation—we cannot maintain that stream of new and different ideas—if we don’t broaden participation in STEM to all Americans, including women and girls and minorities." President Barack Obama

While taking a class to see Hidden Figures will not guarantee a lifelong interest in STEM subjects or a future STEM career, but it certainly doesn't hurt to set the scene. Hidden Figures celebrates the triumph of intelligence over prejudice. It introduces modern children to a history they may never have seen before: dial telephones, television sets with rabbit ears, computers that are huge and bulky, segregated restrooms and water fountains, and riding in the back of the bus. It also shows characters for whom church is an integral part of their lives, as are dinner and bedtime prayers. Hidden Figures is rated PG for language and some thematic elements, so it is not appropriate for young children.

The movie is based on Margot Lee Shetterly's book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. There is also a Hidden Figures: Young Readers Edition.


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      krishna 3 months ago

      Nice article!Thanks for sharing.

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