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STEM Education Gets Help from Hollywood with "Hidden Figures"

The release of the movie "Hidden Figures," is being lauded not only as a great movie to watch during downtime, but also as an important film that has the unique potential to encourage underrepresented student involvement in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).

For those unfamiliar, "Hidden Figures" is a biographical film that focuses on the African American women who worked in the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center and their work orchestrating "the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation's confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanized the world," says film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

Based on the real yet remarkably infrequently told story of Katherine G. Johnson, the film stars well-known and revered actresses Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe to pack the perfect punch of star-power guaranteed to capture a growing generation's attention.

Educators have taken note of the movie's potential to inspire students—especially students who are typically underrepresented in STEM fields.

According to WAFB, an outreach event in Louisiana involved 100 girls attending "Hidden Figures" and participating in a discussion with the theme: "Strength has no gender. Courage has no limit. Genius has no race."

NPR is calling the film a "hit with young women of color interested in STEM" after talking with a 15-year-old who said "[i]t was so interesting to see women who look like me during that time period do something that I am interested in doing in my life."

For Forbes contributor Marshall Shepherd, the film provides viewers with several important messages that not only apply to STEM learning, but to life and learning in general.

"Hidden Figures," Shepherd says, accurately depicts that "teamwork doesn't care about our differences."

"The women featured in the movie were very different from many of the employees at NASA in the early 1960s. Culture, race, gender, nor economic status prevented them from working with others to achieve a common goal--getting the first U.S. astronauts to space. Once characters in the movie overcame their own biases about who 'belonged in the room,' the shared talents of all flourished to achieve their goals. This is a great lesson as we move forward within our broader society today," he said.

Shepherd also challenges viewers--which can be a particularly inspiring message for students and maybe future STEM workers--to question "how many other great ideas or advances that could benefit society were missed out on because a large percentage of the country’s brightest minds were not free to share and engage in science, business and policy during the time segregation."

As experts continue to try to figure out how to get more minorities into STEM careers--focusing predominantly on women and women of color--a film like "Hidden Figures" could not come at a better time.

Nicole Gorman, Senior Education World Contributor


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