Before the invention of the digital computer, “computer” was the title given to workers within NASA that double-checked math equations and computations. Hidden Figures is the story of the female African-American computers who worked in NASA to help the space program in the 1960s. Faced with racial and gender discrimination, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson broke barriers as some of the brightest minds to help create the math that put American men on the moon.
Hidden Figures explains the history that most people — kids especially — didn’t know about the success of African-American women in STEM. After your family watches it together, here are a few things to discuss with your kids:
- Promote yourself. This is another way of saying stand up for yourself, but also stand up for your accomplishments in a way that isn’t bragging. When Katherine was challenged by Jim (her eventual husband) if women could be computers at NASA, she gave her credentials as a successful student in the sixth grade without boasting or gloating. It was the same for her as she tried to ensure she got credit for her work on the mathematics for the Go-No-Go Trajectory. Help kids understand the importance of promoting their skills in a way that doesn’t sound like bragging.
- Rally for those around you. In addition to striving for a supervisory role for herself, Dorothy Vaughan made sure that the computers she supervised weren’t made obsolete and taught them the skills to become programmers. When she was offered the chance to adapt the IBM, she said she couldn’t take the position without her other programmers to work with her. Working as a team was great for the women and NASA.
- Push past ‘no.’ Mary Jackson’s dream to become an engineer encountered many speed bumps. First, she was denied because the regulations within the company changed; then she was denied because she had to figure out a way to take the classes in an all-white building; then she had to make sure her petition was given a hearing date. Mary’s dream didn’t stop at the first no, and kids should be encouraged to find ways over and even around the speed bumps they encounter while working toward their own dreams.
Now that you’ve seen Hidden Figures, try these screen-free activities inspired by the movie.
- Learn rocket science. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory within NASA has a great program to help kids understand what makes a rocket move. Try this experiment that uses a balloon, straws and a string.
- Read more about Katherine Johnson. In 2015, Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 2017, NASA renamed a building for her. “Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13” and “Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race” are both great for kids ages 4-8. Older readers can learn about Katherine’s story in her own words as she penned her own story for kids 10 and older “Reaching for the Moon.”
- Study the Red Planet. Right now, everyone’s eyes are turned toward Mars as the Perseverance Rover is taking photos and sending them back to NASA. Space Place, an online website powered by NASA and designed for kids, has info about the Mars Rovers and what the mission means to humans.
- Teach a skill to someone else. Dorothy Vaughan realized that to keep her job she had to learn to program the IBM computer, and then she taught that skill to the rest of the computer pool. Kids can teach a skill they know (like tying a shoe or a STEM experiment) to a younger sibling, cousin or even record a video for YouTube.
- Go star gazing. First, learn a few stars and constellations to look for in the sky, then look for them at different times of the year. Plot their course along the way and that’s the early study of astronomy.
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