Thursday, February 2, 2017

"Hidden Figures" and Me

Seeing the recent film, "Hidden Figures" was a significant emotional event for me. I'm female and math has been a central theme in my life, so I felt affirmed. I cried a little during the film and even shouted, "Fortran!" when Dorothy began turning pages in that computer programming book.

The movie triggered two significant memories from my school days in the late 1950s.

The scene where Katherine Johnson doesn't just compute numbers handed off to her but discovers another way to solve the problem of the reentry point reminded me of a science class where I began to appreciate mathematics.

One day in my junior high science class the teacher proposed a problem for us to consider overnight regarding the Centigrade temperature scale. Centigrade (nowadays Celsius) was totally new to us. We knew that freezing was 32° Fahrenheit. He explained that water froze at 0° Centigrade and that the boiling point was 212°F but 100°C.

He asked us to come up with a way to convert a Fahrenheit temperature to Centigrade. This was an optional assignment. Just for fun. See you tomorrow.

This puzzle was completely different from any math we had been taught. Our math classes had involved memorizing algorithms, not discovering methods. We generally learned rules such as this: To divide a fraction by another fraction turn the divisor upside down and multiply. There was to be no concern about  why this method worked or how it was useful. Boring and meaningless.

Here was a new slant on math! This was creative. I was excited by the challenge of "inventing" a °F to °C conversion. That evening I stayed up late. I drew many thermometers side by side, studied the scales and tested ideas. I kept trying, but couldn't quite solve it.
These are not my drawings, but you get the idea.

The next day in class the teacher asked for anyone who attempted an answer to raise their hands. There were just two of us, myself and my friend, Mary Lou. He called on me and I said I didn't have the whole answer,  I just knew that it was a ratio, something like 5/9, except it didn't seem to work correctly. He then called on Mary Lou who added, " you have to subtract 32 first."

He asked how we had worked it out. What a great step for a teacher to take! I told about drawing thermometers and theorizing and testing. Mary Lou said she had a set of encyclopedia at home and had looked up the formula.

He congratulated both of us saying, "those are both good methods."

The other memory, also from Junior High is this:

For the first time I could choose electives. One of the choices, "Aeronautics," caught my attention. I signed up.

The first day of class I was shocked to discover that only two girls had signed up for Aeronautics, myself (Marcia)  and  my friend Marsha. The 20 or so boys in the class stared at us in surprise.

After the bell rang Marsha and I conferred in the hall and decided we just couldn't face dealing with all those boys. We withdrew and changed electives. I think I'm remembering correctly that the same science teacher I described above taught Aeronautics. I certainly still remember part of his lecture in the one session I attended, and I regret missing out on the rest of the semester.

I just didn't have the courage, then, of the women at Langley who were up against segregation as well as sexism!

Years later, I did enter a room as the only female and was elated to be accepted as just another computer programmer by the all-male team at K-Byte, the game company I joined in the 80s. All that mattered to them was my ability.

Today, I create math games that are not memorization or drill but encourage experimentation and critical thinking.