About 150 9th graders from city schools gathered at the Roxy Theater on Thursday morning for a private screening of the Oscar-nominated movie Hidden Figures, which is based on the true story of three female African American mathematicians who worked at NASA during the 1960s and played a crucial role in helping to launch astronaut John Glenn into orbit.
Students from Kensington Creative & Performing Arts, Bartram, Furness and Roxborough High Schools and Olney Charter High filled the theater for the showing. The screening was followed by a panel discussion with professionals with careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University.
The event was meant to ignite interest among students in STEM-related careers, while also shining a light on how professionals working in this field excelled despite the prejudice they faced.
The event was presented by the Philadelphia Education Fund, a nonprofit that supports high-quality teaching in city schools and works with schools to create college- and career-going cultures, as well as IBM and the Philadelphia Film Society.
Marial Imperial, a freshman at Kensington CAPA, said that the main character in the movie was more than just the heroine.
“Katherine stood up for herself as both the only Black person and as the only woman on the NASA team” that worked directly on Glenn's flight, Imperial said.
“She became me. Her voice became my voice, the voice of the people I sit with in class, and the voice of kids around the world. And that’s who I want to be when I grow up.”
At the height of the space exploration era, the women portrayed in the film – Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson – were vital to the Space Task Group and were referred to as “human computers.” Before electronic computers were fully developed, these woman performed the complex mathematical calculations that powered early U.S. space exploration, one of the greatest operations in history. But their work was hidden from the public, and they were not recognized or celebrated for their accomplishments because of their race and gender.
During the panel discussion, four women shared their experiences of studying and working in STEM-related careers and encouraged the students to pursue their passion and dreams.
The panelists were Jessica Falcon, a biomedical and medical engineering doctoral student at Temple University; Beverly Goldston, a retired mathematician from GlaxoSmithKline; Madineh Sedigh-Sarvestani, a post-doctoral neuroscience and engineering researcher at the University of Pennsylvania; and Nefertiti Stanford, a customer engineer for enterprise mobility at IBM.
Stanford said that Hidden Figures has become one of her favorite movies because it appeals to the younger generation who cherish their individuality.
“The people on the screen look like the people in STEM today, who hope to be astronauts, doctors, engineers, and mathematicians," said Stanford. "It’s the least likely people who change the world, and that’s why I’m here: to inspire the next group who will change the world through STEM studies and careers.”
At IBM, Stanford’s job involves creating software that supports mobile devices, including the iPhone, Android and Windows phones. She is also the service leader for CoderDojo in Philadelphia, a free coding club for young people that works to advance digital skills and bridge the gap between those who easily have access to technology and those who only have access to quality computers at school.
When asked by a student about how to combat laziness in work and school, Stanford laughed and replied that laziness distinguishes us from technology and robots.
“We’re human! If we didn’t get lazy, we’d be like robots – like the iPhones in our pockets,” Stanford said.
“But start with something that you love to do. If you love math or computers or even art, then find a job doing that. And I can promise you – you won’t be lazy with a job that involves doing what you love.”
Goldston, the retiree from GlaxoSmithKline, worked as a mathematician and computer programmer for 45 years. She stressed the importance of being logically focused and analytical in a field that demands accuracy and open-mindedness. Goldston also talked about the hardships she faced while finding a job as an African American woman, even after she acquired her bachelor’s degree in mathematics.
“Nothing’s gonna stop these kids because I can see the motivation in their eyes. It’s nice to see all these young kids driven to succeed – despite their skin color, religion, or gender,” said Goldston.
Trinity Moore, a freshman at Bartram, aspires to be like the women on the screen and on the panel.
“I’m a woman of color who wants to be a doctor and break glass ceilings, so it’s like seeing a future me on the screen and in person,” said Moore.