She was known as a “human computer,” because of her extraordinary talent in computing mathematical equations. Her talent in mathematics made her one of the most influential African American women at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. During the 1950’s, Johnson made history when she contributed to one of America’s most monumental achievements of sending the first American to the moon. On February 25, 2011, Kathy Lewis from WHRO TV, sat down with Katherine Johnson for an exclusive interview to discuss her career at NASA, and how she became interested in mathematics. This incredible interview highlights Johnson’s upbringing during segregation; the individuals who inspired her to pursue a career in mathematics; as well as her insight on children’s desire to learn today.
“I didn’t feel segregation at NASA, because everyone was doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it,” stated Johnson (WHRO TV, 2011, 11:30). Johnson grew up during a time of segregation, and therefore accepted the segregation as “just the way it was.” Her mathematical skills were so valuable as she was responsible for computing the trajectories, by hand, for where airplanes and spaceships would travel. Johnson also reflects on her childhood and how her father was her main inspiration as she thought he was the smartest man she knew. Her father worked tirelessly to support her family and send all four children to college. Johnson graduated college at the age of eighteen, and began working at NASA’s Langley Research Center in June of 1953.
After watching the interview of Johnson, I was even more amazed by her remarkable mathematical talent, especially her humble attitude towards her accomplishments. According to her daughter, Katherine Goble Moore, her mother would never brag about what she did. In fact, most of Johnson’s children’s knowledge of what she did came from the news. Another interesting fact about Johnson was her ability to compute mathematical equations by hand, which included plane and spaceship trajectories. NASA astronaut, John Glenn would ask NASA to call Johnson to make sure that the calculations from the computers were correct, demonstrating how he implicitly trusted Johnson’s mathematical skills.
At the end of the interview, Johnson shares her views on children’s desire to learn in today’s society. She emphasizes as a child, she had an innate curiosity and feels that desire to learn is what’s missing for most children in today’s society. Johnson states, “ If you lose curiosity, you stop learning” (WHRO TV, 2011, 17:53). I think this resource would be very valuable for my students, as it may motivate them to embrace their curiosity and desire to learn. Johnson mentions the first step to becoming a life-long learner is, “to learn how to learn. Once you learn how to learn you need to want to know what you are learning. Then as you develop that mindset, you only learn if you want to” (WHRO TV, 2011, 17:34). I believe students will find this video very informative as well as motivational.
WHRO TV (Producer). (2011). What Matters – Katherine Johnson: NASA Pioneer and “Computer”. WHRO TV. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8gJqKyIGhE