Each year, colleges around the nation select a common reading book for their incoming students or, in the case of our institution, for the entire college community. In 2017, our institution selected Hidden Figures as a reading meant to provide a common intellectual experience, illustrate the vigor and breadth of our college’s curriculum, and lend itself to a convocation discussion at the start of the school year.
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly shares the stories of four women of color who worked as human “computers” at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., at the start of the space program. Katherine Johnson, who turned 99 this past August, was “the girl” who astronaut John Glenn called on in 1961 to verify that the computer’s calculations were correct. These calculations would dictate the trajectory that would bring his orbital flight capsule safely back to Earth. Through these stories, readers learn about these heroes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and the invisible challenges they faced both inside and outside of work.
Now, in the deep cold of the New England winter, we begin the process of selecting next year’s summer reading. We have been reflecting on how Hidden Figures provided us the opportunity to engage with our students and colleagues on topics we might have not otherwise prioritized at the start of a school year. The form and impact of those discussions underscored for us that a good summer reading book carries with it profound immediate lessons and long-lasting consequences for the shape of intellectual debate in a community.
Fighting hate then and now
Our college community read Hidden Figures during the days surrounding the racist violence in Charlottesville, and around the time of the release of a Google employee’s memo arguing that women are intrinsically less qualified for tech jobs. The historical context of the book’s narrative hits close to home in the wake of these and recent events. Its “hidden figures” point to an under-discussed example of diversity in STEM and allow us to acknowledge the critical role diverse teams have played in our nation’s history.
When our students returned to campus, Hidden Figures gave us a chance to engage in collective dialogue about not only diversity in STEM, but also these timely national issues via a compelling and concrete example. We embarked on these conversations knowing that progress in this area would rely on us building a community of trust and understanding.
Bringing our full selves to work
At a time when our country simmers with hatred, fear and misunderstanding, we, two women professors, an aerospace engineer and an anthropologist, find inspiration in the stories of Katherine Johnson and her colleagues—white and black, women and men. These individuals came together, despite Jim Crow laws and the societal pressures around segregation in the state of Virginia, to build America’s space program.
This collaborative spirit did not happen overnight, though. These Langley co-workers developed respect for and mutual understanding about each other’s backgrounds, family contexts, and skills over time, as they worked together towards a common goal. This is a lesson for all of us today: We are all products of our personal histories and differences, which impact our perspectives and our approach to problems. The Hidden Figures story represents a powerful example of what is possible when we take the time to acknowledge the complexity in the lives of people we ostracize and to join together, regardless of and because of our social differences, to achieve a collective goal.
Engaging history to find a way forward
As professors in an engineering college, this book gave us the chance to consider our work with engineering students and to ask questions about the book’s deep resonance with today’s society. While this book does not provide the answers to the challenges we face as a society, the stories of these women of color can help us shape how we collaborate with our colleagues and students.
These women are the role models we didn’t have in our own educational experiences, yet they paved the way for generations of women of color to pursue degrees and careers in STEM. By helping students connect these and other personal stories and experiences to their own, we can change the narrative of what it means to belong in STEM fields. These unsung heroes in Hidden Figures were the mathematical and engineering brains behind the operations, who helped take America to the moon, in spite of the challenges they faced inside and outside the workplace. As we engage with our students, we continue to think critically about how to support diversity within our community and a sense of belonging by each member within STEM and related fields. Through our curricular designs, we aim to help each student foster the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to be a creative problem solver and an effective team member.
Taking one big step together
Hidden Figures and similar stories must be told as we continue to write our national history. It’s these personal stories, historical and current, that we should discuss with our colleagues and our students in the coming years, recognizing the our opportunities and challenges as a nation are wide-reaching as they affect all individuals, not only those in the military or scientific communities. Through collective engagement about these topics we can better understand how to overcome the workplace, societal, and educational systems and policies that impact our abilities to come together as a community to support one another and our future as a nation. This is our country’s next moonshot.
Alexandra Coso Strong is an aerospace engineer at Olin College of Engineering and Caitrin Lynch is a cultural anthropologist at the college.