by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
Back when I was growing up in Newton, Massachusetts, we started our science fair projects in January every year. We followed a pretty good process (also known as the “scientific method”):
• Step 1: Ask a question.
• Step 2: Do background research.
• Step 3: Construct a hypothesis.
• Step 4: Test your hypothesis by doing an experiment.
• Step 5: Collect the data.
• Step 6: Draw a conclusion.
• Step 7: Share your results.
My high-water mark—for dramatic presentation in the science fair category, if not for searing scientific insight—was the year I hatched some baby chicks who lived briefly in a plastic swimming pool in our backyard.
I remember lots of negotiating. I remember trying to figure out how to get the chicks to school the day of the science fair. I remember making lots of colorful poster boards about the journey from egg to chick and setting up my card table in the gym to exhibit my science project. Clearest of all, I remember getting an A+.
(I have zero memory of what happened to those chicks after the science fair, so it probably wasn’t a good ending, but I definitely enjoyed the process.)
I was also an A+ student in the math we studied at the John Ward School and then at Weeks Junior High…until around eighth grade, when things started dividing up between algebra and geometry.
Suddenly, math class went from concrete to abstract just around the same time I did—moving from regular structured classes with desks set up in rows to an experimental ninth grade program called “Cluster 900,” where we had no desks, no traditional classes, went to a fully integrated cooperative school in downtown Boston, climbed the Presidential Range instead of going to gym class, and went to visit all kinds of religious houses of worship.
Concrete traditional math class—and every traditional class, for that matter—went out the window with the rest of my more structured childhood.
Maybe if I hadn’t gone to the open-air classroom of Cluster 900 (with its experimental, nonstructured, math-free learning) or if I hadn’t hit my preteen years with quite so much non-academic gusto, I would have stayed on the curve of an A+ math student. But I’ll never know.
My sister, Emily, and her own son, Eli, both got perfect scores on their SATs and all standardized tests—math included!
Emily (no way my parents were letting her go to Cluster 900!) went to Harvard Medical School, and Eli is currently an engineering student at UCLA, so excellence at math and science must be somewhere in my genes.
Sadly at this point, I have to be honest with myself that maybe I squandered that opportunity to be a math star. Or more likely, I just wasn’t born to compute. But the fact is that ever since eighth grade, I have limped along in math and in math-related science courses like physics.
My friend and colleague David Vozar feels the same way I do: even as a kid, he understood math as long as it didn’t get too abstract.
Even though David and I don’t understand advanced mathematics, our everyday lives—and the lives of most people—depend on it. Physics, electronics, computing, Instagram, flying, and aeronautics…I am pretty sure that, one way or another, it’s all connected to math.
While my brain will never be able to understand lift and thrust—it sounds like something you do at the gym—there are many things about flying I do understand. Or at least accept.
Such as delays at the airport. And airplane-equipment malfunctions, like the one that just messed up my colleague Sharon Corbin’s trip down to Raleigh-Durham for the Book Harvest Dream Big Festival.
My husband, Jeff, used to fly a small Cessna, and in that plane, I had a little better sense of the aerodynamics of flight. The plane was so small that you really felt connected to the liftoff and landing. We took off and then kind of floated up there for a while.
But the mechanical physics that could propel a multiton “Big Metal Bird” (United’s term) into the air and keep it flying until it is ready to land will always be mind-boggling to me…never mind the version of all this math and physics that sends a rocket ship with astronauts aboard into outer space.
For me, it’s better if I put the mathematics, physics, and mechanics of aeronautics out of my mind and concentrate on not over-packing so I don’t have to check any bags. But fortunately for me and you (and all of humankind), four brilliant women from Virginia—Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden—did not have the same issues I do.
During the Space Race, these “human computers” let nothing stop them from using their incredible math brains to work as engineers and mathematicians at NASA Langley Research Center for the United States space program to help put a man on the moon, shattering glass ceilings in the process.
And also fortunately, one brilliant author, Margot Lee Shetterly, wanted to make sure readers everywhere heard their stories.
As we were putting this post together, David and I talked a lot about how math and science do not discriminate by race, gender, or age. Math is pure truth. And in the face of gender and race discrimination, these women found strength and empowerment in math.
I wish I had known Katherine, Dorothy, Mary, and Christine personally. I am in awe of their brains. And of their courage, determination, and passion. I would have loved to talk with them about life and their experiences and bask in their brain waves.
But while I can’t share a cup of tea with them in person, the next best thing is to read about them. And to be able to share Margot Lee Shetterly’s amazing story with all of you and your students.
As you know, at Scholastic Book Clubs, we try hard to make sure all kids can find books at their level that they will love to read—and because we believeHidden Figures is such an important and powerful story, we are making Margot Lee Shetterly’s original book for adults available in two different editions for one week only: a picture book written with Winifred Conkling and illustrated by Laura Freeman, Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race and a chapter-book version, Hidden Figures: Young Readers’ Edition.
“An important story to tell about four heroines, one that will lead young readers to the longer, more-nuanced coverage available when they are ready.” —Kirkus Reviews
“The perfect impetus for discussion on a host of important historical themes germane to the 1950s such as gender roles, racial prejudice and segregation, and scientific exploration.” —Booklist
To help you and your students experience the Hidden Figures story fully, the Scholastic Book Clubs team has put together some tremendous supporting resources:
• An exclusive interview with author Margot Lee Shetterly about the creation of Hidden Figures and the two Book of the Week editions for younger readers
• A book talk hosted by the Book Boys at P.S. 33Q Edward M. Funk Elementary School in Queens, New York
• Tips from two teachers on how they use grade-level-friendly editions of Hidden Figures to teach resilience and the true history of incredible women in science in Book Talks
• Free printable worksheets to help your students practice character analysis in Cooked Up from a Book
There’s also an Oscar-nominated movie version (rated PG) of Hidden Figures—after reading, consider encouraging your students to check it out!
We hope you and your students are inspired by Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race and Hidden Figures: Young Readers’ Edition. And that even if, like me, math isn’t your strong suit, you can appreciate the tremendous accomplishments of these amazing women who, thanks to the unstoppable power of books and reading, are no longer such hidden figures.
This Book Is Available from Scholastic Book Clubs