America’s history is full of untold stories. Fortunately, one of these stories was brought to light in the last few years.* This post features a picture book about the brilliant, ground-breaking mathematician, Katherine Johnson. [Cover photo credit: Annie Leibovitz.]
Written by Helaine Becker and illustrated by Tiemdow Phumiruk Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Saved Apollo 13 tells the story of Katherine Johnson, the mathematical genius who made sure that Apollo 13 returned home safely. Counting on Katherine was published in Henry Holt and Co. in 2019 and is recommended for children in kindergarten through 4th.
The book follows Katherine along her path to becoming a NASA mathematician. Katherine loved to count as a child.
“She counted the steps to the road. The steps up to church. The number of dishes and spoons she washed in the bright white sink.” (from Counting on Katherine)
She followed her passion for mathematics all the way to NASA. Along the way, Katherine faced many racial and gender barriers. Phumiruk beautiful art work provides for private moments of reflection during the reading of this remarkable picture book biography about a resilient, humble, and inspirational woman.
Counting on Katherine has won many awards, including, but not limited to, the ILA Teachers’ Choices Reading List Selection award, the Chicago Public Library Best Book of the Year, an NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book, Mathical honor book, and a Junior Library Guild Selection award.
In 2015, Barack Obama awarded Katherine the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her pioneering work in STEM fields. [Read more about Katherine Johnson here.] Katherine and three other women who worked at NASA during the space race (engineers Christine Darden and Mary Jackson, and computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan) were recently awarded congressional medals, the highest civilian award in the US.
This past August, Katherine Johnson turned 101.
It is amazing what Katherine Johnson could do mathematically in an age before calculators and computers. She was the calculator. She was the computer. In fact, “computer” was actually the name for people that did the work that Katherine did.
And Katherine was precise. Here is a quote from Katherine about mathematics.
“[Math’s] just there. You can’t do anything without it. It’s in everything. I like to work problems. If you do your best, nobody can ask you to do it over again. I never had to repeat what I did.” (Interview, AARP)
The mathematics depicted through Phumiruk’s illustrations involve calculations relevant to the physics and the arithmetic/analytic calculations involved in space study.
However, the purpose of this book isn’t so much to spark conversation around mathematical concepts, but instead a conversation about who is a mathematician.
Think about the mathematicians that you learned about in school. What did they do? Who where they?
Names like Pythagoras (Geometry), Newton and Leibniz (Calculus) come to mind from my own education (ask your students/children). However, this is only part of the story. There is a rich landscape full of diverse groups of mathematicians and areas of mathematics beyond what is typically found in school textbooks. Mathematics educator Annie Perkins has a wonderful project titled Mathematicians are Not Just White Dudes where she shares information about different mathematicians. Here is a short description of the project from her website:
- We as math teachers tend to only talk about white male mathematicians.
- Most of my students don’t look like that, and thus, they have few mathematical role models they can identify with.
- Take 10-15 minutes a week to research (read Wikipedia, that’s all you need) a not-old-dead-white-dude mathematician, and then take 5 minutes in class to tell your students about them. Include a picture. It’s worth it, I swear.
Perkin’s site includes a searchable spreadsheet to serve as a launch for this research.
As I’ve been writing this post up over the past few weeks, I’ve found that there was too much for one post. I will post about the Magic found while sharing this book with my daughter next week.
*The highly acclaimed film Hidden Figures, released in December 2016, was based on the non-fiction book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, which was published earlier that year. It follows Johnson and other female African-American mathematicians (Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan) who worked at NASA.
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