Do You See and Engage Your Hidden Figures?

  • Do You See and Engage Your Hidden Figures?

    Do You See and Engage Your Hidden Figures?

    By Matt Larson, NCTM President
    March 21, 2017

    By now most of us with an interest in mathematics or mathematics education have seen the powerful movie Hidden Figures—many of us likely more than once. The inspiring film focuses on the critical role of three African American women and their significant contributions to the mathematical and engineering work necessary to the initial success of the U.S. space program in the 1960s. 

    The movie also uncovers for many of us the significant mathematical contributions many African American women made, beginning in 1943, to aeronautical research as part of the West Computing Group at Langley, where they manually carried out complex computations for flight and space research as “human computers.”

    The movie is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (2016). As is often the case for me, while I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, I preferred the book. If you have not read the book, I encourage you to do so. I have been privileged to hear Ms. Shetterly in person discuss the book and the professional and personal challenges and triumphs of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. 

    The book delves more deeply into the central figures’ early lives, their families, their education, and the community in which they lived and worked. Most important, the book more fully addresses the racism, sexism, and other challenges they faced in both their professional and personal lives—issues that in many ways are unfortunately still present in our society today.

    The story’s potential to inspire and be used educationally is considerable. It has been heartening to see the number of stories in the media of school districts around the country that are taking students to see the movie and then reflect on its messages. Several NCTM members have blogged about the effect the movie had on their own practice, for example see Max Ray-Riek or Raymond Johnson, who have put together lessons and resources connected to the movie.

    As I read the book and watched the movie, I was reminded of two famous statements:

    1. Talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not (many attributions).

    2. Mathematics needs people as much as people need mathematics (Rochelle Gutiérrez).

    While the women in Hidden Figures were hidden, it clearly illustrates the postulate that mathematical talent is distributed across race, gender, and socio-economic status. At the same time, it painfully reminds us of the many educational, social, and professional opportunities denied African American women (and men) in the 1960s. Mary Jackson, a few years after Brown vs. Board of Education, still had to petition the court simply to attend night classes in engineering at the local high school because it was a segregated school. 

    We might like to think that access to upper-level mathematics courses is no longer an issue, but it is. Students from marginalized groups have less access to highly qualified mathematics teachers and less access to college preparatory pathways in mathematics (Nasir 2016). Similarly, a recent report by the OECD (2016) found that more than 70 percent of students attend schools where the principal reports that students are grouped by “ability” for mathematics instruction. “Who teaches whom what?” remains a serious concern in K–12 mathematics in the United States.

    Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were able to overcome the racism, sexism, and low expectations they faced because they each had a strong mathematics identity and sense of agency that allowed them to persist in the face of the obstacles confronting them. Access and opportunity are insufficient without attention to identity and agency, which is one of the reasons NCTM expanded its focus on equity beyond access to include identity, agency, and teaching mathematics for social justice.

    We often argue that students need mathematics for their futures, and I have been guilty of emphasizing this narrative. But as Rochelle Gutiérrez has eloquently stated, mathematics needs people, and the story of Hidden Figures makes this abundantly clear. Hidden Figures raises the question as to whether John Glenn would have orbited the earth sooner if the United States hadn’t systematically denied itself of the mathematical and scientific talents of an entire race and gender of its citizens. 

    Because structural obstacles remain in place in too many of our schools, we are still denying our society solutions to the many problems we face when we systematically ignore vast human potential. This is not to argue that the value of mathematics exists only to promote economic, defense, or scientific advancement, but its connection to each is clear. Francis Su, past president of the Mathematical Association of America, has argued that mathematics is ultimately for human flourishing—that it helps each and every one of us experience a well-lived life—whether or not we become professional mathematicians.

    Hidden Figures also reminds us that education should instructionally emphasize collaboration, creativity, communication, problem solving, and innovation when it dramatically illustrates how the human computing groups were replaced by one of the first IBM mainframe computers. Yes, students need procedural fluency and conceptual understanding, but Dorothy Vaughan’s group would have lost their jobs had they not adapted, learned new skills, and been effective problem solvers—in the 1960s. The premium on continual learning and adaptation in the workplace has continued through the beginning of 21st century and is likely only to accelerate.

    The movie reminds me that as teachers of mathematics, we need to constantly keep Francis Su’s admonition in mind with respect to our students: “There is no good reason to tell a student she doesn’t belong in math [your class] … you see a snapshot of her progress, but you don’t see her trajectory. You can’t know how she will grow and flourish in the future. But you can help get her there.” It is our job as teachers of mathematics to help each and every one of our students “get there.” As several mathematics education researchers, including Robert Berry III, Rochelle Gutiérrez, and Anna Sfard, have stated, as teachers we are all identity builders.

    For me one of the ways we can honor the pioneering work and contributions of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and the entire West Computing Group is to not let the lessons of their life story fade from our consciousness. I encourage each of you to reflect on and discuss the following in your collaborative teams:

    • Do you see mathematical potential in all your students, no matter their race, gender, or socio-economic status?
    • Do you help build in each and every one of your students a positive mathematics identity and a high sense of agency?
    • Do you emphasize and honor creative problem solving in your classroom alongside procedural fluency and conceptual understanding?
    • Are you working to dismantle structural obstacles in your school or district that might be denying certain students access to upper-level mathematics courses? 

    If we continually ask ourselves these questions and act on them, then we increase the likelihood we will find, encourage, and support the “hidden figures” in each of our classrooms.

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    Eric Buck - 9/25/2020 1:43:53 AM

    Thank you so much for the details 


    Tony Spark - 3/19/2020 10:07:43 PM

    You are right, there. I will take into consideration the keypoints you gave on how to see hidden figures on the team. Thanks a ton.


    followers uk - 3/2/2020 6:09:04 AM

    Space got a close look at the making of "Hidden Figures," an ... So really, what we're doing here is a civil-rights-slash-feminist movie ... by  epicfollowerscanada

    followers uk - 3/2/2020 6:07:07 AM

    will give you all the feels - I laughed, I cried, I even cheered out loud. ... Think about bans on black hairstyles or women being told to wear heels at work. ... All of the women in Hidden Figures are mothers, but this becomes a  epicfollowersuk

    Andre Elliott - 4/9/2017 10:33:26 PM

    I wish every American could read this article, read the book, and have a life changing conversation about racism, sexism and other challenges in society today. Thanks tremendously.

    Min bahadur Shrestha - 4/9/2017 2:34:50 AM

    Thank you Sir for your important and insightful messages on Hidden Figures.. I have not been able to read the book and watch the film. I think I will do it as soon as possible.I aggree with the statement that tallent is equally distributed but opportunity is not, for the opportunity depends on circumstances and the social constraints. The growing equility in the achievement of mathematics between boys and girls in the recent years supports such statement. The second statement implies the biconditional relationships between people and mathematics.But according to social- constructivism, mathematics being product of human creation, people need mathematics rather than mathematics need people.But I think your intention that we need mathematics and mathematics needs us intents to state inseparable relationship between people and mathematics, which is encouraging.

     You have encouraged us to see mathematical potential in all our students, no matter whatever be their race, gender, or socio-economic status. I think this is the way towards equity in diverse socio- cultural situations. Teachers alone can do much in this direction, but teachers themselves should be free from all the sources of inequality resulting from race, gender, or socio- economic status.School is a miniature of society as mentioned by John Deway. But the school could be a place for embroying the new seeds of equity where teachers can play very important role.For this, the classrooms should be managed to give each students an appropriate environment to develop their capability.I thik it will be a key to the element of justice of human right and democratic rights.

    As you have mentioned, the importance of creative problem solving and teachers' role of posing problems with due respect and consideration of the different backgrounds that different students bring in mathematics classes, very is important.We know that problem solving in mathematics plays many roles and it is very important mathematical task. 



    Henry Borenson - 3/26/2017 2:48:49 PM

    Thank you, Matt, for this posting. At the NCTM meeting in San Antonio, Kathryn Dillard will be giving a talk for Borenson and Banneker titled, Inspiring Every Child. She will share instructional methods we can use to uplift our weakest inner city students and make them aware of the math potential they possess. If you could attend her session on Thursday, I am sure you would enjoy it. 

    Karen Fuson - 3/23/2017 1:03:19 PM

    Great column, Matt.  I was stunned as I walked out of the movie, asking, "How did I not know this before?"  So much has been hidden, including the competence all students have within them.  So this is a great reminder to all of us to continue our work to uncover and support that competence in all students.  Karen


    Tadanobu (Tad) Watanabe - 3/22/2017 8:55:40 AM

    There is no question that teachers are the most critical resources for equal opportunities for all of our students. In Japan - and perhaps other countries - teachers are regularly rotated within school buildings and within school district. Teachers do not teach the same grade level or the same courses over and over every year. In every 5-7 years, teachers are transferred to different schools withing the district.  A major rationale for this policy is to share the resources within a system equitably across all students in the system. I wonder if a policy like that might benefit our students.

    Vicki Hamdorf - 3/22/2017 8:50:57 AM

    I am reading the book right now and I have talked about the story line.  Since this is Women in History month I have been showing video clips of women in math and science, like Danica Kellar and Mayim Bialik.  I hope we can take the middle school students to see the movie.  Having a female math teacher myself I never questioned becoming a math teacher until I got to college and found out the two females in the calculus class were definitely in a minority.  Thankfully I kept in touch with my high school teacher and she encouraged me to stick with it.  Unfortunately 30 years later as my own daughter tried to pursue a mathematics degree she endured some of the same issues I had in the 80's.  These are the things that need to change to really get women involved in STEM careers.

    Julie Wright - 3/22/2017 12:29:40 AM

    Thank you for writing about your enthusiasm for Hidden Figures and about the lessons it has for us as math educators. One quibble: it's Dorothy Vaughan, not Vaughn.

    Inspired by various people on the "MathTwitterBlogosphere," I organized a field trip for my whole public middle school to go see Hidden Figures at a private screening this Friday. Almost 400 kids, about 40 family chaperones, and about 30 teachers and staff will go watch it together and then discuss its lessons. The students are really excited about it, and so am I! I've been telling my classes about the movie for months (I showed them all previews and videos of Katherine Johnson in January), and several black and multiracial girls in my classes have been doing choice assignments in social studies on the women from the movie. I feel like this whole-school trip is one of the most meaningful things I've done as a teacher.

    Here's an editable wiki that includes a list of Hidden Figures resources for math teachers: 

    If you're reading this and want to add a resource, go for it!


    Julie Wright - 3/31/2017 1:33:33 PM

    Update on the link at the bottom of my previous comment -- later I moved Hidden Figures resources to their own page:

    Please do use either editable wiki on the site to add your own ideas, if you want to!

    And our whole-school trip to see Hidden Figures was FANTASTIC. I posted about it here:


    Matthew Larson - 3/22/2017 7:56:04 AM

    Thanks Julie for catching the typo. I apologize for that error. Thanks for sharing the great news concerning your private screening field trip and the resources. Matt.

    Martin Gartzman - 3/21/2017 9:18:36 PM

    Thanks, Matt, for this interesting and throughful review and commentary. Really nice. It inspired me to seek out Margot Lee Shetterly's Hidden Figures book and to look for Francis Su's writing. Your challenge to us all to "find, ecourage, and support the 'hidden figures' in each of our classrooms" reminded me of Uri Treisman. In each of Uri's freshman Calculus classes, one of his explicit goals is to welcome his students into the community of mathematicians. A good goal for all of us to shoot for.

    Vanessa Cleaver - 3/21/2017 8:32:21 PM

    Thanks for this thought-provoking message! The book is definitely a must-read!!

    Denise Spangler - 3/21/2017 8:10:03 PM

    Great message, Matt! I love the connection to Rochelle Gutierrez's message that the discipline of mathematics (and all of its applications) benefit when a wider array of people are part of creating and applying it. I hope that people are taking both girls AND boys to see this movie!

    Johnny Lott - 3/21/2017 7:28:26 PM

    Matt, in a conversation the other day, someone suggested a special event in San Antonio  showing the movie.  Sounded like a great idea to me. Any chance if pulling it off?

    Matthew Larson - 3/21/2017 8:39:35 PM

    Dr. Rudy Horne, professor of mathematics at Morehouse College and mathematics consultant for Hidden Figures, is making a presentation at the Annual Meeting in San Antonio on the mathematics in Hidden Figures. We weren't able to arrange a special showing of the movie.

    John Benson - 3/21/2017 7:01:42 PM

    Will the author be present at the NCTM National convention?

    Matthew Larson - 3/21/2017 8:40:49 PM

    We weren't able to arrange that, however Dr. Rudy Horne, professor of mathematics at Morehouse College and mathematics consultant for Hidden Figures, is making a presentation at the Annual Meeting in San Antonio on the mathematics in Hidden Figures