Grade Level: All Grade Levels (Movie Rated PG)
“Hidden Figures” is the story of three black women who contributed significantly to the U.S. Space program. Mathematics is at the heart of Hidden Figures. Mathematics supports the aspirations of the three principal characters and the space mission’s success. Calculating orbits and the ability to manage extremely large numbers were essential to their research jobs.
From the 1930s to the arrival of the digital computer in the early 1960s, the federal government hired several hundred female “human computers.” Their job was calculating numbers and solving the equations needed for new generations of airplanes, the first American rockets, and the first U.S. space flights. They accomplished their work using pen, paper, and analog calculating machines. The need for these highly skilled workers was so great that even in those days of rampant racial discrimination, they also hired qualified black women. The “human computers” reported to the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, operated by the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) (now the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)).
The film provides a historical link to today’s STEM and STEAM initiatives and can inspire students to seek programs that reinforce their skills and lead to careers in science and technical fields. Katherine Johnson used Euler’s Method in her breakthrough calculations for John Glenn’s Friendship Seven orbit. Euler’s Method approximates a curve using the concept of local linearity to join multiple small line segments of the curve.
Learn more by watching the movie and downloading the activity plan above.
Check out our hands-on and digital STEM resources to help teachers connect their students to the real-world STEM skills they need to succeed in tomorrow's workforce.