Let’s celebrate the contributions of African American scientists! In this post, I discuss the importance of celebrating the accomplishments of a diverse group of people. I also share literature ideas and Black History Month activities.
Teacher: “Think about the scientist who created this invention. What does the scientist look like? Draw a picture of how you think the scientist looks.”
Me: Draws a picture of a white man.
When I was in grade school 30 years ago, I thought all scientists were old white men.
I never imagined scientists could be women or that they could look like me.
Now, as an adult, I wonder how many other girls, especially black and brown girls, don’t see themselves as people who could be scientists.
That’s one of the reasons I love the movie Hidden Figures.
Who are the Hidden Figures?
The movie Hidden Figures (20th Century Fox, 2017) is by far one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. In fact, I watch it every time I see it on TV.
Every. Single. Time.
While I am no history fanatic, this movie moved me in a way 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 admit that before seeing this movie, I had never heard of these women and had no idea there was a job called human “computer,” but as a lover of mathematics and as a black woman, their stories fascinated me.
When Katherine Johnson talks about using Euler’s method and elliptical and parabolic orbits in the movie, I was excited to hear terms with which I was familiar and astounded to learn they completed these calculations by hand. (See this clip from the movie below.)
Don’t see the clip? Click here!
Celebrating the Work of Diverse People
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.
To celebrate Black History Month, I want to encourage teachers across America to add these extraordinary women to your list of important people. As a teacher, I don’t know that I emphasized the stories of any African American mathematicians, so I am excited to be able to share their stories with other teachers now.
Black History Month Resources
To help teachers prepare for Black History Month, I’ve compiled a list of resources for you featuring the women behind the movie Hidden Figures. The list includes short biographies of Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan, as well as picture books, you know how much I love them, to add to your historical figures unit.
Picture Books and Other Resources
- Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
- A Computer Called Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Helped Put America on the Moon
- Computer Decoder: Dorothy Vaughan
- Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13
- Human Computer: Mary Jackson
- Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson
While it’s important to celebrate the contributions of all people all year long, not just during certain times of the year, choosing to highlight the contributions of African Americans during the month of February is a good place to start. Use the Black History Month activities below to help students learn more about the contributions of black Americans.
Black History Month Activities
- Use the picture books above daily to share stories of African American scientists and mathematicians.
- Create a scavenger hunt to help students learn more about the contributions of black mathematicians, scientists, and inventors.
- After reading one of the books, ask students to create a list of 10 questions they would like to ask the historical figure.
- Have students complete “The Women Behind NASA’s Human Computers” crossword puzzle highlighting the major contributions of the women of Hidden Figures. Grab a copy using the form below.
How do you highlight the contributions of diverse people in your classroom?