As Katherine Johnson scribbled complex mathematical equations across a chalkboard in the Space Task Group of NASA, more than 200 girls from around the City of Buffalo watched intently, seeing themselves in the mathematician and feeling inspired by her brilliance.
Last Saturday, Western New York STEM Hub, Girl Scouts of Western New York and AT&T teamed up to host a free private screening of the Academy Award-nominated movie "Hidden Figures" at the Regal Elmwood.
Students from the Buffalo Public School District and Girl Scouts from the city were invited to watch the movie, which tells the true story of three African-American women – Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan – who were mathematicians at NASA in the 1960s, playing vital roles in astronaut John Glenn’s historic launch into orbit in 1962.
The screening was held in an effort to encourage young girls to get involved in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math.
Women and girls have long been underrepresented in STEM. According to the National Science Foundation, although women make up half of the college-educated workforce in the United States, they make up only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce.
"There’s a lot of research that shows that by the time a girl is in fifth or sixth grade, she’s already bowing to stereotypes that say that math and science are for boys," said Cherie Messore of WNY STEM Hub.
"It’s time to break the stereotype and get girls excited about careers in math and science," Messore, one of the coordinators of the event, continued.
While STEM jobs are typically highly lucrative, it has been projected that there will be 2.4 million unfilled STEM jobs in the United States by 2020. In order to fill these jobs, girls and minorities must be encouraged to enter STEM fields.
"We know that in order for us to have a great workforce in the future, we need to give young people exposure to STEM in fun and interesting ways," said Kevin Hanna, regional director of AT&T. "Hidden Figures," he explained, is one of these ways.
Before the movie, opening remarks were delivered by Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes.
Brown proclaimed Feb. 4 to be Girls Coding Day in Buffalo.
"We are working hard to make Buffalo a place where technology grows … these are the jobs of the future and it’s good to see so many brilliant girls here – and a few boys – in the room who are interested," Brown said.
Among the girls in the audience were participants of a coding program held last summer, It’s Your World! Develop It! Powered by AT&T, that aimed to get more girls involved in coding. These participants displayed their projects in the lobby after the movie.
The audience also included many girls who were simply seeking to be inspired.
Evelyn Moppins, a seventh-grader at Buffalo United Charter School, went into the movie hoping to learn more about what it was like to be an engineer and hear these women’s stories.
"When people tell (girls) that we can’t do something, we automatically shut down," she said. "But (the movie) showed us that we can have all this power and confidence."
Danya Flood, a ninth-grader at the Research Lab at MST in Buffalo, felt similarly. The stories of the three women motivated her to continue to pursue her goals, despite any obstacles that may arise.
"I can be anything I want to be and nothing – if I don’t let it – can stop me," Danya said.
"Hidden Figures" has inspired girls not only in Buffalo, but from across the world to be more confident in their career goals. Its broad appeal speaks to girls’ desire for powerful female role models and the need to highlight women who made history. In these women, girls are able to see themselves and feel empowered.
As Peoples-Stokes told the audience, "Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson – they are you. And when you see the movie, you’ll know that they are you."
Sarina Divan is a senior at Williamsville East High School.