The Virginian Pilot - "Hidden Figures"

The Virginian Pilot - "Hidden Figures"

"Hidden Figures" screening aims to encourage Norfolk high school girls into STEM

In 1967, two years before America put a man on the moon, Christine Darden started as a “computer” making calculations at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton.

She helped minimize sonic booms and was among a group of pioneering black women recently brought to light through the hit book-turned-movie “Hidden Figures.”

“Every time I watch this movie, I laugh, I get mad, and by the end I get tears in my eyes because of the pride,” Darden said Wednesday to a theater full of Norfolk middle- and high-schoolers.

Almost 200 students, mostly girls, attended a private screening at MacArthur Center. Organized by Old Dominion University’s Batten College of Engineering & Technology, it was intended to spur their interest in science, technology, engineering and math – so-called STEM subjects – said Dean Stephanie Adams, the first female and first black dean of the school.

“We need to get more students from underrepresented populations in STEM,” Adams said. The film could help.

“Oftentimes we find they haven’t met a scientist, haven’t met an engineer. … Hollywood has given us a gift.”

The movie profiles three black women who fought for and won advancement at NASA in the early 1960s: Dorothy Vaughan, who became the agency’s first black supervisor, Mary Jackson, the first black female engineer, and Katherine Johnson, who helped calculate trajectories for many early rocket missions, including John Glenn’s orbit shown in the film.

Darden isn’t featured in the film, but her time at NASA overlapped with that of the movie’s stars. Now 74, she described to the Norfolk students how she rose into senior management at NASA.

She faced many of the same struggles depicted on screen when she got to Langley, including having her name omitted from authored reports and being denied opportunities for advancement. Decades later, she was the first black woman promoted into senior executive service at NASA; she retired in 2007.

Diamond Gilliam, a 16-year-old junior at Granby High School, said she was impressed by how the women in “Hidden Figures” advocated for themselves.

“I like how (Johnson) kept pushing even though they kept telling her ‘no,’ ” said Gilliam, who takes an advanced calculus course. She wanted to become a lawyer but said she’s lately been thinking about switching to engineering, and the movie helped push her goals further in that direction.

It was the second time 17-year-old Lake Taylor senior Eboni Thornton saw the film.

“I’ve been to NASA Langley before and I never knew” the story of these women, Thornton said.

At one point during the movie, one of the NASA supervisors asks his mathematicians to “look beyond the numbers” to find larger answers.

Bonita Anthony, who works at ODU’s engineering school, told the students afterward to look beyond numbers that show a declining number of women and minorities entering scientific fields.

“Look beyond your own insecurities,” she said. “You can do it.”

Norview senior Deyana Holley, 17, plans to major in computer science.

She said it was “really influential to see black women” fighting for their dreams.

Katherine Hafner, 757-222-5208, katherine.hafner@pilotonline.com. Follow @khafner15 on Twitter.

http://pilotonline.com/news/local/hidden-figures-screening-aims-to-encourage-norfolk-high-school-girls/article_3948541a-8343-5b55-a881-5113d296248c.html