STEM Central

A Community of Practice for NSF STEM Projects



In February, I had the opportunity to attend a Distinguished Speaker Series featuring Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the novel Hidden Figures. During her talk, it occurred to me that Christine Darden, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Jackson were “hidden” not because women in STEM were underrepresented (although they were); nor were they hidden because they did not make significant contributions to the STEM field. It occurred to me that these women and others like them were “hidden” because no one was telling their story. The power of that did not truly resonate with me until the lecture.

Shortly after attending the Distinguished Speaker Series featuring Margot Lee Shetterly, Marvel Studios released the movie, Black Panther. While watching Black Panther, what immediately struck me was the fact that it was “hidden.”

Similar to the women of color working at NACA and NASA during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, the fictional African country of Wakanda was “hidden.” Unlike the women portrayed in Hidden Figures, Wakanda chose to be hidden. The country hid, from the world, their richness; their resources; and their contributions to STEM. Because the country was “hidden,” outsiders did not believe Wakanda was anything more than another third world country with no desirable resources. In Wakanda, women of color were in position of authority (i.e. generals of armies) and STEM geniuses. This is great, and it is great to see on film and show women of color in this regard, but these women were unknown to the world outside of Wakanda; in other words, they were “hidden figures.”

HBCUs can no longer afford to be hidden. Like Wakanda, our HBCUs have STEM resources. For example, Fayetteville State University (Fayetteville, NC) is home to one of few electron microprobes worldwide! North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University (Greensboro, NC) is the #1 producer of engineering degrees at the undergraduate level awarded to African-Americans. Johnson C. Smith University (Charlotte, NC) is nearing completion on a Science Center to enhance areas of study such as renewable energy, electronics and cybersecurity, robotics, analytics and bioinformatics.

Not only are HBCUs producing STEM graduates, but they are cultivating STEM leaders. The women highlighted in Hidden Figures graduated from HBCUs. Christine Darden -Hampton Institute (Hampton VA), Dorothy Vaughan - Wilberforce University (Wilberforce, OH), Mary Jackson - Hampton Institute (Hampton VA) and Katherine Jackson - West Virginia State University (Charleston, West VA). They were respected leaders in STEM.

A final takeaway from Hidden Figures and Black Panther is leadership. In both stories, it was the decision of the leaders at NASA and Wakanda to hide the people and the country, respectively. Is leadership a key in advancing STEM? Realizing the importance of leadership in STEM, the Center for the Advancement of STEM Leadership is working diligently to develop emerging leaders at HBCUs. The leaders of this initiative realize the impact leadership will have on the advancement of STEM; specifically, at HBCUs. They realize it is key to broadening participation.

I heard someone say, “the only way to make history a true story is to make it a complete story.” As emerging STEM leaders, we have a responsibility to contribute to the story. How will we do that? We will do it by leading efforts to broaden participation in STEM; frequently communicating points of STEM pride at our institutions; bringing our institutions to the forefront; becoming HBCU STEM advocates. It is our responsibility to “complete the story.”