The American Dream Needs Diverse People: Lessons from a STEM Pioneer Who Helped Send Men to the Moon

The American Dream Needs Diverse People: Lessons from a STEM Pioneer Who Helped Send Men to the Moon

If you could take a class taught by anyone in the world, from history or present day, who would it be and why? (Baruch College, CUNY)

Do you know Katherine Johnson? She was an essential part of our space program. She helped Alan Shepard and John Glenn shoot into space and orbit the globe. She is a wife, mother, and former teacher. She is a gifted mathematician. She's a recipient of the 2015 National Medal of Freedom. She is a STEM pioneer. She is a woman. She is black. She's one of my heroes. I would love to learn at her feet.

The things I would want to learn from Katherine Johnson have more to do with life than math. I would want to learn from her what it was like to be born in 1918 and to grow up in the segregated American South. I would like find out who the teachers were that pushed her to explore her interests and pursue her education such that she graduated from college at the age of 18. I would want to know about how she was supported by her loving parents. I would also want her class to teach me about her work at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and then NASA—in a segregated world. And I would like to understand how she sustained longevity in her career, working at NASA from 1953 to 1986!

Before our class got started, I would thank Katherine Johnson for her work teaching children math and as well as helping to send a person into space. Both of these jobs did so much to make the lives that we now lead in this nation possible. Teachers inspire all of the change makers who alter the course of a school, a community or a nation. Johnson taught children how to express complex ideas and to persevere when learning difficult topics. She was also one of the women known as human computers during the early days of the space program. As a part of NACA and NASA, she worked alongside fellow brilliant and motivated people to make what seemed impossible possible—to help a national dream come true. Katherine Johnson was a visionary; I would hope that she would teach about optimism and the pioneering spirit.

Katherine helped to build and create a program that excited Americans of all backgrounds and experiences. But could have been excluded for any number of reasons: having been out of the workforce while she raised her children, or being a black woman in America in the 50's. Some sixty years later, the life and contributions of Katherine Johnson remind me about the power that resides in including diverse people in the American Dream.

Suzette Duncan is a teacher at AltSchool

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