Real female role models – STEM Ambassadors 1950s and 60s style!

Earth in orbit

No Sunday morning lie-in for me as I set off with our 15 year old son (I fancied a challenge) to see an early morning showing of the movie Hidden Figures at the cinema. 

The film tells the incredible story of a team of African-American women mathematicians - Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson - who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the US space program and the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. Working as ‘computers’ to manually calculate all launch data the visionary trio crossed gender and race barriers to inspire generations to dream big and were ahead of their time as inspiring female role models.

"An excellent STEM feel good film – and we owe it to these inspirational women to keep the message loud and clear that STEM subjects and careers – especially engineering and mathematics – are for girls!"

The mind of real life Katherine G Johnson, who worked with NASA from its earliest days, was so trusted, that apparently astronaut Glenn called for Johnson to check the complex trajectory calculations made by the computer before launching the Friendship 7 in 1962.

Dorothy Vaughan, a talented mathematician, and previously a teacher, led NASA’s West Area Computing Unit from 1949 until 1958 during the time when laws required segregation of the African-American women from their white counterparts. Becoming an expert programmer Vaughan also contributed to the Scout Launch Vehicle Program before retiring in 1971.

Mary Jackson, another extraordinary mathematician who worked closely with Johnson and Vaughan also joined NASA after working as a teacher. In the 1950s, she experimented with processing data from wind tunnels and flights. She studied at evening classes at the University of Virginia to enable her to join a training program to earn a promotion from mathematician to engineer. In 1958, she became NASA’s first black female engineer.

An excellent STEM feel good film – and we owe it to these inspirational women to keep the message loud and clear that STEM subjects and careers – especially engineering and mathematics – are for girls!

Today the STEM Ambassadors programme plays a vital role in raising awareness of STEM careers with young people and teachers. These modern day inspirational role models from a wide range of backgrounds and industry sectors volunteer in schools and colleges and with non-school groups such as guiding and scouting organisations. STEM Ambassadors continue to spread the positive messages that Katherine G Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson have achieved in lending their names to the Hidden Figures movie.

Currently there are over 15,000 female STEM Ambassador role models who are following in their footsteps to help raise the profile of women in STEM careers with both boys and girls. With an estimated shortfall of 69,000 STEM qualified people each year, the UK’s key growth industries need girls as well as boys to continue in their STEM studies. More importantly why should girls miss out on exciting and rewarding STEM career opportunities?

And the verdict from a 15 year old boy:

“A really good film that should be shown at school… amazing that my iPhone probably has more computing power than the first IBM that NASA used… and can we have something to eat now?”

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