Changing the world isn’t all about “giant leaps” and single moments of innovation. Our successes are built through the actions of hardworking everyday people, and they are achieved one step at a time.
That’s the lesson of “Hidden Figures,” a biographic film depicting the female black mathematicians who worked on NASA’s Project Mercury, the program that made history by sending the first American astronauts into space. Along with their work on the groundbreaking program, the three main characters also made history as some of the first women of color to hold high-ranking positions in NASA.
The film’s simple story of perseverance and empowerment resonated with more than 200 Washington state girls and their families this Martin Luther King Jr. Day at a special showing of the film arranged by Techbridge, an after-school STEM program for girls.
Techbridge aims to break down gender stereotypes by introducing girls to female role models in science, technology, math and engineering, along with weekly after-school activities that help girls deepen their education in these areas.
At the event, Techbridge volunteers took pictures of the young attendees with inspirational slogans, many wearing costume versions of the iconic cat-eye glasses worn by the film’s main character, Katherine Johnson. The organization collected the pictures and notes from the girls to send to the real-life Johnson, who is now 98.
You would be hard pressed to find more inspiring role models for women in STEM than Johnson and her compatriots, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. “Hidden Figures” follows these NASA “computers” as they work on the calculations for Project Mercury, raise families and navigate the complex political landscape of a segregated Virginia.
All three women went on to break ground in NASA: Vaughan became the space agency’s first black supervisor when she was named the head of the electronic computer division there, and later became the first black head of personnel; Jackson became NASA’s first black female engineer; and Johnson was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 for her work on calculating flight trajectories for dozens of NASA missions.
“I really liked it, and it was a lot of fun to see how one person could do all that math,” said 10-year-old Kate Denney, who convinced her mother Jo Ann to take her and a friend to see the film on their day off from school.
Denney said she likes math, and has even jumped a grade ahead in the subject.
Her favorite part of the movie? “It was really cool how she found out that her math was wrong and she had to redo it,” she said, referring to a point in the film when Johnson changed her team’s approach to calculating the trajectory for John Glenn’s historic orbital mission.
“I think when you go to a movie like this, especially with young girls, you’re looking to empower them,” Jo Ann Denney said. “These women that came before them were strong enough to think out of the box and bring some creative ideas to an environment that could easily have suppressed them.”
Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson certainly changed the world in their time, and with a little help the next world-changing idea might come from one of the thousands of girls who were inspired by their stories.