“Just do it. Take all the courses in your curriculum. Do the research. Ask questions. Find someone doing what you are interested in! Be curious!” — Katherine Johnson, Former NASA Mathematician and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient
The United States of America has a rich history of innovators and barrier breakers. Three of these barrier breakers have been pushed to the forefront of our minds in the form of last weekend unlikely blockbuster, the No. 1 box-office smash Hidden Figures.
The film is set during the space race of the 1960s. It recounts the story of three African American women who worked for NASA as mathematicians and engineers. At the time, these women did not fit “the mold” of a NASA specialist, but Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson proved to be crucial in the success of the first manned orbiting of the earth.
In recent years, the trajectory (to use a space race term) of education and innovation in the United States, has become more shallow. A recent Wired article also referenced the women who inspired Hidden Figures, and warns us of this falling trajectory. (It’s an interesting moment for NASA’s formerly so-called “computers.” Johnson’s story was also featured in a recent episode of the NBC sci-fi time travel series Timeless.)
Stanley Litow, president of IBM and author of the Wired article, states that, “In order for the (United States) to remain at the forefront of innovation and not lag behind, we must address the disconnect between the skills required for 21st century jobs and young people’s ability to acquire those skills.”
Litow continues by arguing that there is not enough being done to cultivate a love of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects in young Americans. To fix this problem, he contends, changes must be made in public education and training.
In order for those necessary changes to occur, it will be up to us to support government policies that positively impact public education. Any effort to improve the overall school climate, as well as students’ access to advanced coursework, will be beneficial.
Follow your STEM dreams, and encourage any young people you know to do the same. Educate yourself in any way you can, through certification or a degree. It doesn’t matter what your background is — you can make a difference.
Just like the women behind Hidden Figures defied odds to help the United States win the space race, we must encourage our youth to be innovative. This can be done in part through proper STEM education. Boundaries and barriers are made to be broken, like those that were broken during the space race. Let’s do all we can to encourage similar innovation.
About the Author — Jake Slater is the social media manager for GoCertify and a graduate of Brigham Young University. Jake has never won a space race, but he did once beat some coworkers to the serving area on chips-and-salsa Wednesday.