Women, STEM and public schools

I didn’t know the story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson until the movie “Hidden Figures.” These three African American women—whose work at NASA’s Langley Research Center helped land the first man on the moon in 1969—truly were hidden.

They, along with the other women who worked for NASA and its predecessor beginning in the 1930s, did their important work behind the scenes. That’s one of the best reasons I can think of to observe National Women’s History Month as well as International Women’s Day, which is on March 8: to celebrate the women in every era whose accomplishments, adventures and courage have gotten us where we are today, whether we know their names or not. 

The fascinating careers of Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson also tell us that behind-the-scenes roles are critical in every segment of our lives and society, and essential to every advance we make.

The movie “Hidden Figures” and National Women’s History Month are also good reasons for ramping-up our efforts to interest girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The pathway to STEM careers was forged by women like Vaughn, Jackson and Johnson, a physicist who calculated trajectories for Alan Shepard’s 1961 space flight. She also verified the calculations for John Glenn’s first orbit of Earth and computed the trajectory for the Apollo 11 flight to the moon.
In the 1930s, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, forerunner to NASA, hired women as “computers” to make sure engineers’ calculations worked. The program was expanded in the ‘50s to include African-American women. As 98-year-old Johnson once said: “Some things will drop out of the public eye and will go away, but there will always be science, engineering and technology. And there will always, always be mathematics.”

Wise words, especially in light of a report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce a few years ago. The report found that although women fill almost half of our nation’s jobs, we hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs. Educators  have the power and influence to change that.

On the surface, it seems like President Trump agrees that we need more women who are scientists and engineers.  After all, he recently signed two laws encouraging women to pursue degrees in STEM and become entrepreneurs. Here’s what he said at the signing ceremony, in reference to the low percentage of women in STEM careers: “It’s not fair and it’s not even smart.”

But here is what’s really not smart: Trump’s inclination to turn back the clock on civil rights protections and shift support from public schools to unaccountable, for-profit charter schools and voucher programs. With his first budget, set to be released next week, the president will signal what his priorities are. We already know education is not one of them. Case in point: his choice of Betsy DeVos for education secretary, despite her lack of experience or qualifications. How will we produce girls interested in STEM if our public schools don’t have the tools, resources or leadership from the top to inspire them and ignite their passion and curiosity?

If Trump really wants to improve those STEM percentages, he will look to the public schools that enroll most of our nation’s students for answers. He will actually listen to the education professionals who have the experience and know-how to make decisions that ensure students’ success.

Katherine Johnson and her colleagues certainly overcame challenges in their day, including hostile politicians, co-workers, laws and policies. It’s clear we’ll encounter some challenges ourselves in the White House and in state capitols over the next few years.  But during National Women’s History Month (and beyond), I’ll focus on how we can meet whatever lies ahead, especially when it comes to helping girls pursue their dreams.

To find out more about what you can do to make sure all students have the opportunities they deserve, visit NEA’s education justice website. 

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