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AEI Celebrates Engineers Week 2024 - A Celebration of Black Women in STEM

Updated: Feb 28



In a world where extraordinary, iconic, and legendary are frequently bestowed upon celebrities, there exists a group of individuals whose accolades transcend the glitz and glamour of popular culture. Enter the Black Women who, armed with nothing more than pencils, slide rulers, and adding machines, orchestrated the intricate calculations that propelled NASA rockets and astronauts into the cosmos. These Hidden Figures didn't just crunch numbers—they defied discrimination, sexism, and racism with every stroke. Their indomitable spirit and unparalleled achievements serve as guiding lights for Black Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) today, reminding us that despite the hurdles we face, our potential knows no bounds. In their stories, we find solace, inspiration, and the unwavering belief that our contributions, too, will be etched into the annals of history. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan—three extraordinary women—embodied brilliance, perseverance, and resilience, as they shattered barriers in the predominantly white, male domain of STEM. Their stories not only illuminate the triumphs of the human spirit, but also underscore the urgent need for diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM fields.

 


Katherine Johnson, a Mathematician at NASA, played a pivotal role in America's space exploration efforts. After earning a B.S in Mathematics and French from West Virginia State College in 1937, she later joined NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), a precursor to NASA, in 1953. In 1957 she provided the calculations for Notes on Space Technology, a series of lectures given in 1958 by the Flight Research Division and the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD) Engineers. Her meticulous calculations were instrumental in launching Alan Shephard, the first American into space in the May 1961 Freedom 7 Mission. Katherine continued providing calculations, ensuring the success of subsequent space missions, including the Apollo 11 Moon Landing and John Glenn’s Friendship 7 Orbital Mission. After 33 years at Langley, she retired in 1986, having authored over 26 research reports. In 2015, she was honored by President Barack Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s Highest Civilian Honor at the age of 97. Despite facing racial and gender discrimination, Johnson's intellect and tenacity propelled her to become an indispensable figure in the quest for scientific advancement.




Mary Jackson, an Aerospace Engineer at NASA, defied societal expectations and bureaucratic barriers to become the agency's first Black Female Engineer in 1958. A 1942 Graduate of Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) with a dual degree in Math and Physical Sciences, Mary joined NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), a precursor to NASA, in 1951. Her groundbreaking work in aerodynamics paved the way for future generations of women and minorities in STEM, including co-authoring a report on the Effects of Nose Angle and Mach Number on Transition on Cones at Supersonic Speeds. For over 20 years, Mary had a very productive engineering career, authoring dozens of reports mostly focused on the behavior of the boundary layer of air around airplanes. As time passed, she became frustrated at her inability to secure management roles and noticed the glass ceiling was the rule rather than the exception for female professionals. By 1979, she left engineering, taking a demotion to fill the open position of Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager, where she had a large impact on the hiring and promotion of the next generation of all of NASA’s female Engineers, Scientists, and Mathematicians. Retiring from NASA in 1985, Mary’s journey serves as a testament to the power of perseverance and the importance of challenging institutionalized prejudice in pursuit of one's aspirations.




Dorothy Vaughan, a Mathematician and Computer Programmer at NASA, was a trailblazer in the early days of computing. She joined NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), a precursor to NASA, in 1943 and was the head of the segregated West Area Computing Unit from 1949 until 1958, which made her NACA’s First Black Supervisor and one of a handful of female supervisors. Recognizing the emergence of electronic computers, Dorothy taught herself programming languages and became an expert in FORTRAN, enabling her to lead one of NASA's first racially integrated computing teams. She was a champion and fierce advocate for the women working in the West Computing and would often intervene on the behalf of the “human computers” in other groups who deserved promotions or pay raises, regardless of their race. She was often requested by the Engineers to personally handle their work and was sought after for her recommendations of which “human computers” could handle particular projects.  Although Dorothy sought out other management positions, she never received one, retiring from NASA in 1971. Her leadership and ingenuity not only advanced the agency's technological capabilities, but also empowered countless Black women to pursue careers in computing and mathematics.


✅ Take Action:

The achievements of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan are not merely historical footnotes, but serve as beacons of inspiration for Black Women in STEM today. Despite significant progress since their time, systemic barriers and biases continue to hinder the full participation of underrepresented groups in STEM fields. Black Women, in particular, face intersecting challenges of racism and sexism, ranging from lack of access to advancement opportunities to workplace discrimination and microaggressions.


To address these disparities and build a more inclusive and equitable STEM Community, concerted efforts are needed at all levels of society. Educational institutions must prioritize diversity and equity, ensuring that underrepresented students have access to high-quality STEM education and support networks. Employers must actively recruit and retain diverse talent, creating inclusive and equitable workplaces where individuals from all backgrounds can thrive and contribute meaningfully to scientific discovery and innovation. Moreover, it is imperative to celebrate the achievements of Black Women in STEM and amplify their voices and perspectives. By highlighting their contributions, we can inspire future generations of Scientists, Technologists, Engineers, and Mathematicians from all walks of life. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan's legacies remind us that talent knows no bounds and that diversity is not just a moral imperative or political football, but also a catalyst and rallying cry for excellence and progress.



As we reflect on the remarkable journeys of these Hidden Figures, let us recommit ourselves to the pursuit of equity and justice in STEM. Let us honor their legacy by championing diversity, dismantling barriers, and creating a future where every aspiring Scientist, regardless of race or gender, has the opportunity to reach for the stars. The time is ripe for a new generation of trailblazers to emerge—to boldly go where no one has gone before, and to forge a more inclusive and equitable path for all.

 

👩🏾‍🔧 Ready to honor the legacy of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan by championing diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM? Take action today! Contact Dr. Cristi to explore tailored strategies and initiatives that empower underrepresented groups in STEM, while giving STEM Leaders the tools they need to successfully hire and retain diverse talent. Together, let's ensure that the spirit of these pioneering women lives on in the next generation of trailblazers. Reach out now to make a difference!




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