Black History Month: The Real Women Behind Human Computers

The movie Hidden Figures (20th century Fox, 2017) was by far one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. In fact, I watch it every time I see it on HBO. Every. Single. Time. While I am no history fanatic, this movie moved me in a way that I was not expecting.

Hidden Figures is based on the stories of three African American women– Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan. Initially hired by NASA to work as human computers, mathematicians who performed calculations for the work of NASA, each woman became an important contributor to NASA and the space race of the mid-twentieth century.

I will admit that before seeing this movie, I had never heard of these women and had no idea that there was a job title called human “computer”. As a lover of mathematics and as an African-American woman, their stories fascinated me. When Katherine Johnson talked about using Euler’s method and elliptical and parabolic orbits, I was excited to hear terms with which I was familiar and astounded to learn that they completed these calculations by hand. (See a clip from the movie below.)

Can’t see the video? Click here!
So often the contributions of African Americans, especially women, are overlooked and unappreciated. This film does a beautiful job of highlighting, not only the work of NASA, but the individual contributions of the brains behind the work. On the eve of Black History Month, I want to encourage teachers across the world to add these women to your list of important people. As a teacher, I don’t know that I emphasized any African-American mathematicians, so I am excited to be able to include them now.
To help teachers prepare for Black History Month, I’ve compiled a list of resources for your regarding the women behind the movie Hidden Figures. The list includes short biographies of Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan, as well as, a fun crossword puzzle highlighting the major contributions of these women for you to use with your class.

Activity: Grab your copy of “The Women Behind NASA’s Human Computers” here or click the image below.

I hope you enjoy learning about these pioneers in American History!

Sound Off! Have you seen the movie Hidden Figures? If so, what did you think? Respond in the comments below.

Shametria Routt Banks

Shametria Routt Banks

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