Hidden Figures Movie Inspires STEM Scholarships

Hidden Figures Movie Inspires STEM Scholarships

by C. K. Thomas

Hidden Figures.jpg

In November of 2016, PepsiCo and 21st Century Fox partnered with the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) to offer two grand prizes to young women interested in furthering their careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering or math). Joy Buolamwin, a young professional woman, and Yuna Shin, a high school student, won the grand prizes that, according to Shadow and Act, include $50,000 in scholarships, a trip to the Kennedy Space Center in Orlando, and access to STEM training materials and programs from NYAS.

The panel of judges included Hidden Figures film producers Pharrell Williams and Donna Gigliotti, Fox 2000 President Elizabeth Gabler, and President of the New York Academy of Sciences Ellis Rubinstein. The judges chose the two winners from 50 semifinalists selected from 7,300 entrants. Click here to view videos of their fascinating contest presentations.

The movie Hidden Figures centers on three black mathematicians, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. All were working for NASA and used their skills to calculate flight trajectories for the United States’ first launch of an astronaut, John Glenn, into orbit around the earth. These talented women have gone largely unrecognized in the history of space flight until now.

According to the website, History Makers (see link below), when Katherine Johnson worked for the Spacecraft Controls Branch of NASA, she calculated the flight trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American to go into space in 1959. She also verified the mathematics behind John Glenn’s orbit around the earth in 1962 and calculated the flight trajectory for Apollo 11’s flight to the moon in 1969.

NASA’s website biography (see link below) of Dorothy Vaughan clearly states her value to the US space program saying, “Those who speak of NASA’s pioneers rarely mention the name Dorothy Vaughan, but as the head of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) segregated West Area Computing Unit from 1949 until 1958, Vaughan was both a respected mathematician and NASA’s first African-American manager.”

Mary Jackson became NASA’s first black female engineer in 1958 after working with engineer “Kazimierz Czarnecki in the 4-foot by 4-foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, a 60,000 horsepower wind tunnel capable of blasting models with winds approaching twice the speed of sound. Czarnecki offered Mary hands-on experience conducting experiments in the facility, and eventually suggested that she enter a training program that would allow her to earn a promotion from mathematician to engineer.”

After almost 20 years in engineering, Jackson realized she couldn’t break the “glass ceiling” into management, so she left engineering and took a demotion to become Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager. In this position she worked to change the hiring and promotions practices for the next generation of all of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers and scientists.

Read more about the lives of these United States space scientists at the links below:

Katherine G. Johnson



Dorothy Vaughan



Mary Jackson



Link to STEM contest:


C.K. ThomasC.K. Thomas lives in Phoenix, Arizona. Before retiring, she worked for Phoenix Newspapers while raising three children and later as communications editor for a large United Methodist Church. The Storm Women is her fourth novel and the third in the Arrowstar series about adventurous women of the desert Southwest. Follow her blog: We-Tired and Writing Blog.

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2 Responses to Hidden Figures Movie Inspires STEM Scholarships

  1. This was a wonderful post! It’s hard to believe how the extraordinary work of these women could have been kept secret for more than 50 years. I guess it’s more understandable when one realizes that it was racist and misogynist MEN who kept this information from the public.


  2. wxyz63 says:

    Thanks, Mary Ellen! I’m so glad to see women entering the career fields of science. It’s opportunities like this one that keep women’s chances alive and growing! Cheryl


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