I’ve seen Hidden Figures twice now (and counting). The question my wife asked as we were leaving the theater is still haunting me:

“How much is the human race missing out on because the people with the genius ideas aren’t being heard, because of oppression?”

As a math educator, I’m so eager for people to see and discuss this movie. I want to hear what we are learning about what it means to do mathematics, about who can be good at mathematics, about what it means when we embrace new technologies and how that changes workers’ lives, about how racism and sexism manifest themselves in big and small ways, about what it takes to transform cultures, and more.

I’m especially eager for students in our math classrooms to get to think their way through Hidden Figures. There are a million lesson plans that could be written, and I know people like John Burke are encouraging teachers to collect them and share them in his post, “Let’s Start a Movement for Hidden Figures

Here’s my first contribution, written for Philadelphia’s week of Black Lives Matter lessons. In this lesson, students play a game that my colleague Suzanne invented called Mission Control, in which they have to describe, using one-way communication, some mathematical object that their partners out in space have to recreate. It focuses on communication of math ideas (something Katherine Johnson worked on a much harder version of later at NASA, when she wrote papers about helping astronauts quickly calculate new trajectories on the fly, in time to change course and not get lost in space, when things go wrong), and also on seeing familiar objects in new ways when you’re forced to describe them under new rules (a very simple version of the problems Katherine Johnson was trying to solve when they knew what a basic orbital trajectory should look like but didn’t know of any calculations to plot it exactly).

My lesson also encourages students to reflect on their own lives and how their lives prepared them to be mathematical problem solvers, able to see things in new ways, cope with frustrations, share their ideas, etc. And then asks, “How might the women in Hidden Figures have drawn on their life experiences as Black women to help them succeed in this moment of crisis?” “How might the women in Hidden Figures have drawn on their life experiences to help them make mathematical and engineering and computing breakthroughs?”

(Update: after sharing with Black educators and asking for feedback I was told that for students without a lot of context to empathize with Black women, asking that general question was likely to lead to stereotypes, not more empathy and reflection. Carl suggested asking specifically about the movie characters, and Rafranz suggested adding more opportunities for students to reflect on their own identities and the impact of identity on mathematicians. Inspired by their work I also added links to Annie Perkins’s “The Mathematician Project” and NCTM’s “The Impact of Identity”)

Finding strength in the ways adversity has shaped us, and knowing those strengths serve each of us in our mathematical lives, is one of my takeaways from this movie. What’s yours?

And please, if you read the lesson or use it with your students, let me know how it goes and how it can be improved! Here’s the link to the lesson: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1DSZGK-qL40ldZft5Lb-OTTNPOBIlGSR4G-Dek0ta91k/edit?usp=sharing

Updates from the Community!:
Melynee Naegele took this lesson and ran with it. She blogged about it, and also made Google Slides with nifty outer space backgrounds that you could use to present the lesson.

Norma Gordon has been collecting Hidden Figures resources in a Google Drive folder. She has links to other resources, NASA’s “Modern Figures” toolkit, and a lesson on Conversion Errors that’s full of the math of space travel.