January 18, 2017

Hidden Figures – make them not-so-hidden to students

Posted by Laura Guertin

Wow. I was “hooked” when I first saw the trailer to this movie last year – it went on my “must see” list. I hope it also made it to your list of movies to check out in 2017. If not, please make the effort to see this remarkable movie about the remarkable women of the “colored computers” division of NASA’s Langley Research Center in the 1960’s.

Everyone can come away from this movie with something – including our students. Our students are growing up in a time without separate entrances and stacks of books in the public library for people based on skin color. Our universities and classrooms are open to all. We encourage conversations and collaborations across gender, ethnic identification, etc. There’s a piece of history and snapshot of society that this movie portrays.

There is also the challenge of increasing diversity in STEM that we still face today – but again, this movie highlights the incredible challenges women of color faced in the 1960’s to further their education and to be respected by fellow employees. I appreciate that the movie shows how these three trailblazers were able to succeed. And although their stories are inspiring, it makes be reflect upon how many others were so beaten down by the fight.

The stories of Mary Jackson, Katherine Goble Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan needed to be told. And for our students, this true story of three black female mathematicians at NASA needs to be more than a lesson in STEM diversity. As I know this is most likely a movie my students would not venture out on their own to see, I’m finding ways to bring these “hidden figures” out from hiding and into my classroom.

I’m teaching oceanography this semester. The ah-ha moment came to me towards the end of the movie – why is it so important to have accurate calculations for Friendship 7’s landing? Why did it have to be an ocean landing? How was John Glenn and Friendship 7 recovered? C-SPAN has great video archives of the landing and recovery by the USS Noa. And I hope I can emphasize enough to students an appreciation that all of the calculations for this orbital space flight were done by hand – “IBM” was just being set up at NASA at the time! (any increased appreciation for the importance of math is always a good thing)

If you are looking for other interesting “lessons learned” from the Hidden Figures story, you may be interested in this article in Smithsonian Magazine, this online post by Joseph Lalonde on “18 Leadership Lessons And Quotes From Hidden Figures,” and Marshall Shepard’s contribution in Forbes titled ‘Hidden Figures’ Reveals Four Great Lessons For Science And Society (his story/experiences, still in the present-day, may surprise you (or not)).

Please do consider taking a moment to inspire your students with this inspiring story and help them realize why this movie matters.