‘Hidden Figures’ Reveals the Power of Math

Yesterday, I wrote about P-TECH, the acclaimed network of six-year high schools developed by IBM that teaches coveted STEM skills to predominantly low income students of color.

One thing I didn’t get to mention is that P-TECH’s founding principal, Rashid Davis, will be participating on a panel at the renowned Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, happening now in Las Vegas.

Who else will be on the panel? None other than Academy Award-winning actor Octavia Spencer, who portrays real-life NASA math genius Dorothy Vaughan in the eagerly awaited film Hidden Figures, opening in theaters nationwide Jan. 6.

The Big Reveal in Hidden Figures


You know the story by now. So-called colored computers–black mathematically skilled women–were tasked along with others to do complex, abstract calculations to support the liftoff and landing of Col. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth. These women–still subject to the South’s segregation laws–helped make up the “mathematical ground troops in the Cold War,” as Hidden Figures author Margot Lee Shetterly puts it on her website.

But, this incredible story was truly hidden–buried–until Lee Shetterly wrote the book on which the film is based.

Unfolding from the 1940s to the 1960s, the story, as Hidden Figures film director Theodore Melfi puts it, “[…] takes place at the collision of the Cold War, the space race, the Jim Crow south, and the birth of the civil rights movement.”

‘We’re in the Fight of Our Lives, People.’


That’s what actor Kevin Costner says, playing the head of the space program, at one point in the movie. The Russians have already gone into space, and the Americans don’t want them to get too great a lead.

But, that simple statement on its own makes me think of the other fight that the “colored computers” of NASA didn’t win–the broader fight for excellent education in communities of color across the country.

Although P-TECH and schools like it may produce the next generation of math elites, the truth is that most children of color in the U.S. still attend underresourced schools where they are underserved.

Want your daughter to grow up to be the next Katherine Johnson or Dorothy Vaughan? Don’t rely on her school. Give her extra workbooks, and reward her for doing good work. One reward? Take her to see Hidden Figures.