SXSW.edu Spotlights Hidden Figures and a Need for Diversity in STEM Fields

By LAURA LOREK
Publisher and Senior Writer with Silicon Hills News

The importance of diversity and inclusiveness to solve tough problems and to spur innovation is one of the great lessons from the film Hidden Figures.

The movie recounts the story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, brilliant African American women who worked as mathematicians for NASA. They were pioneers in the space race and they helped to launch Astronaut John Glenn into orbit in his Mercury capsule Friendship 7.

“They were able to bring these women in with different backgrounds and different perspectives. And they were able to contribute so significantly to the success of our first American being able to orbit the earth,” said Camille Alleyne, associate program scientist for the International Space Station Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. She has done rocket engineering and space craft design for more than two decades.

Alleyne spoke on a panel at SXSW.edu following the screening of the movie Hidden Figures Monday night at the Stateside Theater in downtown Austin for a packed crowd. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment and Journeys in Film sponsored the event.

In the film, the female NASA mathematicians, known as “computers” dealt with racial prejudice as well as gender discrimination during the 1950s and 1960s. And despite lots of obstacles, they contributed significantly to the nation’s space program.

Author Margot Lee Shetterly, the daughter of a NASA Langley researcher, wrote the book, upon which the movie is based.

“I couldn’t do what I’ve been able to do for the last 21 years without the trail these women blazed for people like me,” Alleyne said. “So I am clear that I stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Their pursuit of excellence despite all the obstacles they faced is truly “mind blowing” and “awe-inspiring,” Alleyne said.

“In the face of adversity, these women persevered,” Alleyne said. “They were determined.”

One of the best parts of the film is it exposes everyone to the vital role African American women played in the space race, said Natalie Coleman, CEO of After the Peanut, a company focused on STEM education. Throughout our society, there are more hidden figures and their stories need to be told, she said. More people need to be exposed to African American scientists, engineers and innovators, she said.

After the Hidden Figures movie came out, NASA created a Modern Figures toolkit to give educators, parents and others more information about pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Eileen Mattingly, director of education for Journeys in Film, said teachers can use the film to help kids visualize a certain era of time or a social issue.

“This film is wonderful for that,” Mattingly said. “If you want to understand what is happening in foreign policy today it’s really important to understand the history of the Cold War. And to our kids today, that’s ancient history.”

Hidden Figures helps people understand the Cold War and the pressure people were under when the Russians launched Sputnik and further ignited the space race in the U.S.

“Why did people even break the barriers that prevented people of certain racial groups or women from working at NASA?” Mattingly said. “Why did the federal government do that? Partly because of the competition.”

Teachers can also use the movie as a springboard to get kids inspired and excited about doing something, Mattingly said.

On Tuesday, Journeys in Film will host a workshop to share curriculum based on the Hidden Figures film, said Rafranz Davis, executive director of professional and digital learning for Lufkin ISD. She moderated the panel.

Hidden Figures will inspire generations to come, Alleyne said

“I literally lived the life these three women lived,” she said. “Having our story: African American women, scientists and engineers in the space program our story being told it was just mind blowing for me.”

One person can shift something into another direction, Coleman said. She encouraged people to take action and do something for their family, community, school or business.

“Because the power of one is very significant,” she said. “This movie started with one person who wrote a book and it’s going to change the shape and the landscape of America for certain for years to come.”

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