Life Story: Katherine Johnson (1918–2020)

NASA Mathematician

The story of a Black mathematician whose calculations contributed significantly to American space exploration.

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson, 1959. Courtesy of NASA on the Commons.

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Suggested Activities

  • Katherine is part of a long and often overlooked history of American women in STEM. Connect her life story to those of other women scientists, mathematicians, and engineers in WAMS
  • Katherine is also part of a long history of American women teachers. Connect her life story to those of other educators in WAMS, including Mary McLeod Bethune, Zitkala-Sa, and Jovita Idar. What did education mean to these women and why does that matter? 
  • Katherine sometimes worked as a maid in the summer to bring in more income for her family. When she started her job at NACA, she was particularly proud to have a career that did not require her to do domestic work. Connect this life story to that of Dorothy Bolden to learn more about Black women and domestic work in the 20th century. 
  • Katherine often overcame racism and sexism in the workplace by working extra hard to demonstrate her intelligence. Compare her life to that of Chinese American scientist Chien-Shiung Wu, who took a similar approach to her work. 
  • Katherine’s life and career were significantly shaped by her race. Learn more about the experience of Black women in the 20th century by connecting her life story to those of Mamie-Till Mobley, Pauli Murray, Mary Church Terrell, and Mary McLeod Bethune
  • Screen all or part of the movie Hidden Figures. Invite students to think about how the filmmakers depicted Katherine’s life. What feels realistic? What feels exaggerated for the movie? 
  • Katherine Johnson intentionally wrote her memoir for a young adult audience! Consider assigning excerpts to your students so they can learn about her life in her own words. Ask students to compare her memoir to this life story. What elements were omitted? What was included and expanded beyond her comments? Why do you think these choices were made? 



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