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Paradigm Lab Assessments

July 14, 2017

This year, I joined an Honors Physics class in the 3rd quarter, and one of the things it reminded me of what both how vital paradigm labs are to modeling physics, and how tempting it can be for students to sit on the sidelines and wait to be handed the information they think they need. In one instance, we were trying to figure out what factors affect the net force acting on an object moving in uniform circular motion, and students were releasing pendulums and measuring the tension force of the string to see how the mass, speed, and radius of the path affected the tension force at the bottom. When first discussing how to approach the experiment, I saw the not too unfamiliar situation where a couple of students seemed to be driving most of the discussion, and many other students seemed to be just waiting for them to get to the point where the teacher said: “great, now go do the experiment.” This, naturally, left them very shortchanged when it came to understanding what they were investigating, and really ill prepared for the board meeting to follow.

I find board meetings to be both fantastic and frustrating. As much as possible, I just try to sit back, take notes and watch what is happening. Sometimes, I’ll feel like an important point is being left out, or a question isn’t being asked, and right as I’m getting ready to jump in, another student will save me from needing to intervene and raise the issue. I’m always astounded by the ideas students come up with in these discussions. But I also find that there’s a significant group of students who can be quite lost in these discussions. By the time you get to late in the year, those students have become seemingly comfortable with being lost—they’re just patiently waiting for the “smart” kids in class to figure it out and tell the class the formula they need to know to be able to solve the problems in the packet.

This is entirely my fault as a teacher. It is quite possible to succeed on all our assessments knowing nothing about the work done during the paradigm lab itself if they are comfortable working with the “equation.” And yes, this is part of the reason why some students can come to the notion of thinking in models so late, since they don’t av apply the idea in the paradigm experiment, and instead are just waiting on the result.

So what’s to be done? First, I’d like to point out that it wasn’t always this way in our classes. There was a time when we taught from PSSC physics and used their infamous multiple choice tests that pushed students to extend their reasoning from the labs they conducted. For instance, following the N2L experiment we did where students pulled skate carts with springs, we would ask this question

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This question pushed students to go back to the understanding they developed in lab and think carefully about what they were doing and how each of the points was generated by the same cart experiencing the the pulling of a different number of equally stretched bands. These questions were hard, and more often than not, students would miss them on the first try, and in these pre-SBG days, we’d have to do things like offer partial credit corrections for students to recover some credit.

I’d love to have questions like this as an integral part of the lab experience in our class now, and it’d be great to add a standard to about conducting and understanding experiments that establish the model. My problem is that under our current approach to SBG, I would likely have to generate a ton of questions for each experiment/model to give students the opportunity to reassess to mastery, and that seems very daunting.

Another way to have students demonstrate understanding of a lab would be to have them write lab reports, and I think there could be great value to this. But they are a challenge to grade, a chore for students to prepare and would likely entail a sacrifice of homework and class time that would lead to covering even less content.

Paradigm assessments

Instead of lab reports, I’d like students to focus and reason about a few critical ideas and questions that came up in the lab discussion. Keeping in the spirit of SBG, I’d like for them to be able to make mistakes and improve their understanding of these points, and I’d like for students to recognize that the best way to be successful at this task is to deeply engage our board meetings.

I’m thinking of creating paradigm assessments that would come from my observations and questions in the board meeting. Here’s a pretty artificial one that I cooked up for the buggy lab.

View this document on Scribd

The key to this assessment is that I’d like for it to be short (no more than a single page) and focused on reasoning about the lab. I’d also like it to get students to think about how to revise and improve their work, and why we ask them to do all the things we do like labeling your columns or including a line of best fit.

If I’m taking good notes, it should be relatively easy for me to find a point or two to build an assessment around each lab discussion.

As for grading, I think I could hand this out on the day following the lab discussion and ask students to complete it at home. If you reach a threshold for mastery of this that I’ll have to define, you get credit for the “can reason about the CVPM paradigm lab” standard. If you don’t, I’ll give a bit of feedback to keep thinking and ask that you make a short screencast explaining your revisions, and this process could go on until we agree you’ve met mastery, or time runs out, and I have to report your grade.

I think this gives me a tool that will be manageable for students and teachers and will push us to get more out of our paradigm discussions, but I’d love your suggestions and feedback.

Pivot interactive: The future of lab notebooks?

July 13, 2017

I’ve come to believe that the very best software out there is written by teachers who have a deep understanding of a subject and pedagogy. Sadly, I only have a small handful of examples of this:

  • Desmos, the world’s best graphing calculator and math learning platform. It’s a no-brainer that they have math teacher extraordinaire Dan Meyer serving as Chief Academic Officer.
  • Pear Deck, the best formative assessment tool I’ve used. I’ve come to think of it as a window into student thinking. Again, Riley Lark, a great former math teacher serves as the CEO of this company.

I’m glad to say that I think there’s now a third piece of software that is a teacher created a transformative tool for learning, namely Pivot Interactives, created by Peter Bohacek, an incredible physics teacher from Minnesota and his colleague, Matt Vonk, from the University of Wisconsin at River-Falls.

I first met Peter when he spoke to the Global Physics Department about the work he was doing to create Direct Measurement Videos (DMVs) back in the early 2010s. Sadly, I think the recording has been lost to history. Direct Measurement Videos allow students to make direct measurements of physical phenomena using tools (stopwatches and ruler) inside the video. They’re incredible.

Here are some examples of Direct Measurement Videos

Peter has also worked with Carleton to create an entire library of DMVs. Over time, they’ve also improved their player to the point where the latest version allows you to even move a ruler within the video. This library is an incredible resource, and I’ve run many classes where students work in small groups to figure out the physics of a hockey slap shot, a steel ball spinning around a glass bowl, or a disk falling from a string.

Peter and Matt have just released the next evolution of Direct Measurement Videos, creating an online platform for scientific investigations, Pivot Interactives.

Pivot Interactives consists of two parts: 1. A library of tremendous video labs, and 2. a tool for online making lab investigations of your own, with or without video. I strongly encourage you to go and create a free trial account to check out some of the labs to see just how good they are.

A Fantastic Library of Labs

I’ll describe one that I find to be magical—Electromagnetic Induction Demonstrator (I don’t think you can access this without creating an account).

Here’s a photo from the video—Peter and Matt have built a tricked out air track glider that carries a wire loop that will pass through a seriously powerful magnetic gap.

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When the loop passes through the gap, there’s a nice deflection of the voltmeter. The lab goes on to explain a bit about electromagnetic induction. One of the great features of Pivot Interactives is that you are free to take a pre-existing lab like this and modify any element of it to suit your tastes. If you’d prefer to skip the theory and have the students just jump to trying to make measurements, you roll your own version in seconds.

Now, here’s the cool part—in the upper right corner of the video, you have a toolbar that gives you three measurement tools—a stopwatch and rulers to measure horizontal and vertical distances. You also get an empty that you fill in with the things you measure. Everything has been filmed with a high-speed camera, and you can step through the video frame by frame to make your measurements.

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To get multiple data points, you can access videos of multiple trials from right in the player. As you enter points into your data table, they are automatically plotted on the graph below, which auto scales, and allows you to do a linear regression of the data. You can even add extra columns for quantities that you calculate.

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And because this was created by a physicist, Pivot handles uncertainty beautifully. There’s a popup to add error bars to each of the quantities in your graph, and questions with wonderful physics teacher wisdom (and a bit of snark) that read “As always, using the phrase ‘human error’ will cause the device you are using to burst into flames.”

A Powerful tool to write your own labs

So far I’ve only spent about half an hour working with Pivot Interactives, so please keep that in mind in both understanding how easy this tool is to use, and that there are probably lots of incredible features I haven’t even discovered yet.

Pivot lets you create your own interactive activities. I see this as an electronic lab notebook that we can use for almost all of our traditional labs in physics. I’m going to show you how I might create an interactive for the traditional buggy lab that stats so many intro physics classes. Once you click on “New Activity” you get presented with an interface that asks you to describe the objectives of the activity and lets you add interactive sections—data tables, graphs, questions, videos and more.

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It’s super easy to build up an activity just by adding sections and components:

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Once you’re done designing, you can save and preview your activity:

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This tool is so easy to use, that I think you could practically create an activity on the fly during class if an interesting idea comes up in discussion and you want to send the class out to measure it. I’ve done something like this with Desmos Activity Builder, and this level of quick adaptability is another sign that this is a great, well thought out tool—it will let you quickly put an activity in the hands of students.

To get students into this activity, you first need to create a class, and there’s a simple enrollment process to get them into the class with a code similar to most LMSs. You can add the activity to your class, and then you’ll be able to see and grade all of the student responses. Since I’ve only been playing with this for a short time, I haven’t had an opportunity to test how it works with a class. Peter tells me that you can see students’ work anytime after they press a save button, and they might add real-time saving similar to Google Docs and Desmos Activity Builder in the future.

Get started now

Again, it’s easy to create an account on Pivot Interactives, and right now, access to the software is free. After August, Pivot will be working with Vernier to sell student subscriptions to use the software. Yearly student subscriptions cost $5/student for high schools or $10/student for colleges, which I think is completely reasonable to support fantastic software like this.

Getting closer to the holy grail of returning papers fast

July 10, 2017

I don’t know why, but I find this video fascinating. I would never do this in my own class, but there’s something about the amazing efficiency of returning 30 papers in 11 seconds that make me go wow.

After a lot of work, I think I’m pretty close to having something working that’s going to blow the doors off this paper returning technique.

Previously, I’ve written about turning PDFs into student portfolios, and now I want to write a bit of an update and invite your feedback.

The dream and why QR codes are actually useful

It’s going to be a while before paper physics tests ever go away. It’s just too damn hard to write out mathematical thinking with anything other than a pencil and paper, unless all of your students have $1000 iPad Pros and Apple Pencils—which are just amazing.

If I’m going to be grading stacks of papers for the foreseeable future, that means students are going to be getting papers back from me, and more often than I’d like, they’re going to be stuffing them in the crevice of a folder or backpack never to be seen again. But what if it were different? What if when I got done putting feedback on those tests, I could return them all digitally to each student, individually, and both the student and I could go back to this document any time we wanted?

For the past 5 years, I’ve always made a scan of all my tests right before I return them. It’s very useful to be able to go back and pull out the pages from a giant PDF when a student needs a copy of his qui or has a question about something I wrote. But the big PDF is clunky—I want each student to get his own paper, and I want this to be automatic—shouldn’t there be a way to just do this after the copier finishes scanning?

I’m thrilled to say that there is, and QR codes are the magic that makes it all work.

The workflow

This year, we finished our transition of moving all of our assessments into LaTeX, which was a huge task. LaTeX is an amazing formatting language that lets me do two things—I can use the textmerge package to create a stack of tests with student names pre-filled out. Even better, I can use the LaTeX qrcode package to embed the student’s name as well as any other information I like on a small QR code in the upper right corner of a students quiz. When run LaTeX to output the quiz, I get a pdf that contains 15 individualized copies of my quiz, which I then print and give out to my students.

After students take the quiz, I can add my feedback, and just pile the papers back in a pile and run them through the scan-to-email feature of our multifunction copier—I don’t even worry about alphabetizing them, as I previously did.

Cool part here: I set up a filter on my gmail to look for incoming messages from the copier that contain the subject “Honors Physics” and tag those messages with a “process assessment” tag. I then use the Save emails to Google Drive chrome plugin to automatically download all attachments from emails with the tag “process assessment” to a Google drive folder. Since I’m using Google drive on my mac, that cloud folder is also on my computer, and I have the awesome program Hazel watching that folder. Whenever a file is added into that folder, Hazel runs a processScans.py script I’ve written that does the following.

ProcessScans called Ghostscript to break the pdf into a bunch of individual pngs and stores them in a temp folder. It then goes through the png files and reads the QR codes that are on the start pages of each quiz, and builds a list of the individual assessments that are in the PDF. Now I know exactly where all of the individual quizzes are in the large PDF and who they belong to.

Finally, ProcessScans goes through the PDF and uses the array to split, title and move each student’s quiz to a shared Google drive folder between me and each individual student, which I created using gClassFolders (which is no longer supported but still works great for me). And presto, my tests have now been returned to each student individually, probably before I can make it back to my office from the copier.

Future improvements

It shouldn’t be too hard to have this program also be able to send an email to students letting them know that their quiz has been returned. I was also thinking that it would be pretty simple to not only put in the individual assessment into the student’s folder, it could also append the assessment to a larger PDF so that the student had access to a single pdf with all his/her work inside. If I then had a webpage with links to each of these pdfs, I should be able to further annotate them and carry on ongoing digital conversations with my students about their work.

If I were to extend this a bit further and put a qr code on each page, I could probably pull out pages, and make concordances of an entire class’s work on a single problem too.

Beta beware, and maybe you want to play along too

After lots of testing, I think I’ve got nearly all of the pieces working, but it’s based on a small pile of spaghetti code and as you can see from the description above, connecting a mess of different tools in a Rube Golbergian way. Given my never ending problems with knowing which version of python I’m running and what packages I have installed, it took me an especially long time to get the python end of things working. But I’m posting what I’ve done now, rather than waiting until I polish it even more because I’m hopeful that you might have some suggestions for how to improve this idea even further.

If you are interested in making this work on your machine, I’m planning on writing up detailed directions when I get a chance to fully test it out on a clean computer in a few weeks. In the meantime, I’m happy to provide any help I can if you contact me on twitter or post a comment here.

Thinking about the purpose of an introductory physics course

July 10, 2017

I’ve spent some time this summer reading Improving How Universities Teach Science: Lessons from the Science Education Initiative, which is a great summary of the incredible work Carl Weimann and his team did to transform science education at the University of British Columbia and the University of Colorado.

The book is tells a detailed story of the efforts to bring about large scale change to the STEM departments of these universities, and doesn’t shy away from spelling out all the various pitfalls along the way. One of the most critical elements to their efforts were creating a set of learning goals for each course that are defined operationally in terms of what students will be able to do upon completion of the course. The book provides a wonderfully detailed guide on how to go about learning goals. To some extent, this is what we’ve been doing with standards based grading for a long time—we have a set of objectives for each of our units and assess students specifically on their mastery of these concepts. But we don’t really have any course level learning objectives for our courses, and so I’d like to use this post to explore some ideas around what course-level learning objectives for an intro course might look like.

Background

We teach two flavors of first year physics, both of which use a modified form of modeling instruction. The honors physics course is taught to sophomores, and works students through the following sequence CVPM, BFPM, CAPM, UBFPM, MTM, PMPM, ETM, CFPM, MTET. The students in this class are adept at mathematics and sign up for the course to be challenged. Most students leave the course as very adept problem solvers capable of taking on challenging “goalless” problems that require them to synthesize multiple models. Student go on from this course to take Honors Chemistry, and then often our 2nd year physics course that uses Matter and Interactions. Though we haven’t explicitly written them out, I think I could easily come up with learning goals centered around problem solving, making simplifying assumptions and working with scientific arguments.

Our other first year physics course, Intro Physics, is a bit more of a challenge. This class is mostly taken by juniors and a few seniors, and almost all of them come from an Intro Chemistry course that follows the modeling chemistry curriculum. The students in this class are far less comfortable with mathematics, and don’t really see themselves as scientists. Students in this course usually go on to that Environmental Science, or occasionally our 2nd year Advanced Bio or Chemistry course. For some, it might be the only physics class they take in their lives.

Past approaches to the Intro Course

We’ve tried so many approaches to this course. Long ago, we taught from the Physics by Inquiry curriculum, and spent nearly 12 weeks on a deep dive into the properties of matter, beginning with devising an operational definition of mass using a pegboard balance, and culminating in a six page paper explaining why things sink or float (written around February). There were many parts of this curriculum that we loved—through experiment, students arrived at truly novel understandings and insights. But overall, the course was plodding to the point of being painfully slow for a majority of our students, and really we couldn’t justify a physics course that barely touched Newton’s laws in the spring.

Other things we’ve tried have included starting the year by challenging students to determine experimentally which has more energy—a battery or aue.

We’ve also tried working through modeling units on light and circuits, and while this has been enjoyable, I again this we’ve succumbed to the drag and experiment or discussion on for “just one more day” until many students were lost all interest in figuring out Snell’s law or the how the voltage of a battery affects the current through a resistor.

Most recently, we’ve moved to doing a “lite” version of Honors Physics, teaching most of the same models as our Honors Physics class, while removing a few ancillary topics and some of the more advanced problems. This seemed to be more successful—students in the class seemed to enjoy doing work similar to the work their peers in Honors Physics were doing. Also, every year we have a couple of students in Intro Physics who want to make the jump to our 2nd year Matter and Interactions course, and this certainly makes the transition easier for them.

Thoughts for this year

Though I think our current approach to Intro Physics is superior to many of our past approaches, I’m not sure that the ultimate goal/learning objectives for a good Intro Physics Course should be Honors Physics “lite.” It’s partly because I want to think deeper about our enduring understandings/course learning goals for the honors course, but if it’s true some of the students in our class are never going to study physics again, I feel a strong pull to expose them to more than just the 9 mechanics units we do with them.

I’m also deeply drawn to Project Based Learning, and have written about this a lot in the past:

There’s some particularly great discussion in the comments of the last two posts. But I still feel uncertain about making PBL more integral to my course for many of the concerns I raised before—I think just hard for students to achieve the same depth of understanding that they get from a lot of problem solving. Though that begs the question, should becoming adept at problem solving be a main goal of an intro physics course?

Ok, so where does this leave me? One other thing that has gotten me thinking a lot recently is Chad Orzel’s post, What Should Non-Scientists Learn From Physics. In this post, Chad gives his answer to what the essential understandings are for a “physics for non-majors course” which seems like a very similar audience to my Intro Physics course. Chad settles on two big ideas—one point of content—the atomic hypothesis, beautifully explained by Feynman here:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.

Chad also offers one practice of physics—the idea that all of physics is built on approximate models and the power of simplification.

I really like this idea—the whole “assume a spherical cow” joke that summarizes the physicist’s world view so well. I think this idea really took hold for one of my second year physics students, who wrote me in a thank you letter:

I’ve loved learning to focus on a few fundamental ideas and model-centric thinking in order to feel confident in my ability to closely examine my world, draw useful results and tackle new and exciting problems.

This is awesome, but I know this particular student was exceptional, and she came to this understanding through a tremendous amount of hard work—she even went off and wrote a paper on her own to estimate what effect force of falling rain has on flying airplanes. She didn’t arrive at this idea from my preaching about models or fundamental principles, and a number of her classmates, even some who who are capable of solving the most challenging calculus based physics problems, still see physics as a enormous jumble of equations and arbitrary rules about when to use them. I also know from experience that this is the dominant way most of our intro students see the subject.

One possible start

Still, it’s a great goal to help students to have the ability to help students to see the power of highly simplified models, and I think the key is to make sure we are always helping students to see the model first and foremost, and assessing their ability to see and think about the approximations they are using, which naturally is one of the hardest things I know of to assess.

But here’s the start of a lesson that might open up the school year. Let’s just look at a bowling ball. Roll it past the students and have them make some observations. Very likely we’ll get answers that include “speeding up”, “slowing down” and maybe someone who’s willing to say “constant speed.” Then through a process of guided inquiry, we can can devise an experiment to help us to answer this question. We’ll need to put some limits on our observation—maybe we’ll observe the ball between two marks on the floor, and also decide what we need to measure, and how we will measure it. This will all take time—I’m imagining easily a class period for the first simple experiments where students are limited to just using a stopwatch, and likely more time when we go back with laser photogates or video analysis.

Eventually, I’m sure that we will all come to the agreement that over a few meters, the velocity of the ball is very nearly constant, and so a constant velocity model is going to be very useful. I think we can even then see how this simplified model makes it easy for us to make predictions—perhaps if I can borrow some bowling ball ramps from the local bowling alley so that we can have reproducible motion, we can predict when the ball will hit the wall on the opposite side of the classroom, and see that our model does a good job for answering this question. Then later, we can try to predict the time it takes to cross three baskeball courts in our field house, and see how the model breaks down as well.

I think there’s a kernel of something useful here, but I also worry that this falls prey to a lot of our previous teaching—going deep into something that can seem boring and lull students into not seeing the subtle details and insights that we are uncovering here.

But that’s what I’ve got at the moment. I’d love to hear thoughts you might have about what a successful intro physics course might look like.

Saying goodbye to a great class with a letter

May 25, 2017

Every year, I read Sam Shah’s incredible senior letters (2010, 2012, 2013, 2016) with a sense of awe and inspiration. I personally find these letters to be illuminating, and though I’ve never met Sam or his students, I imagine Sam’s words must have a powerful effect on his students. It’s been a long time since I’ve taught seniors, but every time I read one of these letters, I tell myself that I must write one when I do. And so, when I taught a 2nd-year physics course to 15 seniors this year using Matter and Interactions, I knew what I would do.

Sam says he doesn’t write these letters for his students, and after writing mine, and reading it to my students, with more than one tear forming in the corner of my eye, I think I understand. Writing this letter crystallized so much of my thoughts about what I want the big takeaways of my class to be, and what I think I really mean when I tell students physics changes the way you see the world. But more than just helping me to crystallize my thoughts, writing this letter and reading it to my students left we with a feeling of tremendous closure and happiness as I looked up and saw my students ready to use their physics goggles to change the world.

So if you’ve got a class of seniors, or maybe just a class of students that’s done something especially memorable, take a page from Sam’s book, write it down, and share it with your students. You’ll be glad you did.

Of course, since I’m a terrible procrastinator who struggles with concision, my letter spills over 4 pages and misses much of the beauty of Sam’s letters (though I did borrow a wonderful Feynman quote I discovered from him). Still, it’s one of the best things I did this year, and I’ll remember those last moments of class for a long time to come.

AS Physics Senior Letter 2017

Basic but important physics questions: What does it mean to say Energy is conserved?

January 19, 2017
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Ok, here’s a question I’ve been thinking a bit about. In my classes we learn about the principle of energy conservation as the idea that there is this fundamental quantity, energy, that we can account for in a system. If the system is completely isolated, this quantity doesn’t change, and when this system is interacting with its surroundings (via work, heat or radiation) we can account for the changes in the energy of this system.

But it’s gotten me thinking of a question I find myself asking a lot—”Is the energy of this system conserved?” I think most of my students hear that as “does the energy of this system stay the same?” But now I’m thinking that if my notion of conserved is “can be accounted for” then the answer to this question should always be yes (we can always figure out how to calculate the energy flowing in/out of the system), unless we’re working on problems dealing with the total energy of the universe and dark energy or something.

Wikipedia seems to say that a conserved quantity is constant along the trajectory of a system, and thus is sounds like for the system of a ball falling to the ground (where K is increasing), energy would not be conserved.

So if this is true, must I say something like the energy of the ball system is not conserved, but we can account for the change in the energy of the system by calculating the work done by the gravitational force? And is this an application of the principle of energy conservation?

My thoughts on seeing Hidden Figures

January 3, 2017

A few days ago, I finally got to see Hidden Figures at the theater, and I loved it. Here’s what I wrote on Facebook:

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Before you read further, I encourage you to first read what this film meant to Refranz Daviz, an amazing educator, teacher of color, and leader of the EduColor Movement: Why Seeing Hidden Figures is Important.

Now that you’ve read Rafranz’s take as a teacher of color, I’ll share my perspective as a white, male science teacher, whose experience in science and life, in general, has been a very privileged one. In this post, I’d like to think about the lessons I learned from this film and think about how I can share those lessons with my students.

Warning: there are a few spoilers ahead. 

  • The enormity of obstacles, even when they are just bathrooms: separate but equal never is. As a child, I remember learning about “separate but equal” and seeing signs for a “colored” water fountain next to one for “whites only.” I knew this was wrong, but many of the images I remember seeing showed facilities that did look nearly “equal”
    Back then, I had a hard time understanding how this seemingly small difference could be a major spark of the Civil Rights Movement. But separate is never equal, and this film teaches that lesson in powerful ways. When Dorthy Vaughn goes to the public library to find a book on FORTRAN, she has to steal it from the Whites-only section of the Library. When Katherine Goble asks about the location of the bathroom after she has been reassigned to the all-white Space Task Force and figures out she has to walk half a mile to the colored restroom back in her old workplace. Watching her have to run this distance, in heels, in the rain, carrying stacks of calculations to check over, only to rush back to her desk to keep working, only to get yelled at by her boss. These examples make it clear that something as simple as the placement of a library book or bathroom can be a tremendous obstacle for advancement—when you have to spend half an hour trudging to the bathroom multiple times a day, you are going to have less time to work than the white male engineer across from you who just has to walk outside the office to find a bathroom.
  • The pervasive subtlety of systematic racism and sexism: What was most interesting to me was that despite all the moments of visible and invisible racism that the heroines faced in this movie, and deep impacts these events had on them, most of the white characters were completely unaware of the unequal society around them. The bathrooms for the white scientists were right around the corner. I learned from reading the book that NASA even provided on-campus dormitory housing for female employees—whites only, of course. When you get on the bus, there’s a seat waiting for you in the front, and your section of the library is stocked with every book you could want, including those that would allow you to advance your career. All of this creates an atmosphere that allows the white scientists (and the entire white community of Hampden) to live a life blithely unaware of all the intricate and mostly hidden ways society is structured to maintain their status and deprive blacks of the opportunity to gain equal status.
  • The incredible amounts of grace and restraint that Black Americans must display at every moment in order to simply exist in a white world: The movie is filled with moments where one of the protagonists endure a veiled insult or indignity from a white colleague, and must simply brush it off, to not cause a scene which would only draw a negative reprisal. The most powerful of these moments comes in the opening scene of the movie, which is in the trailer, and features the three lead characters trying to fix a broken-down car on the side of the road when a Virginia State trooper approaches. In this movie, there’s a great moment of comic tension where the officer says something like “NASA, I didn’t know they hired …” and Dorthy Vaughan quickly interjects “Women,” and manages to cajole the officer into providing the women a police escort to work. But throughout this scene, all I could think of was Sandra Bland, and how simply asking why she was pulled over set off a confrontation with the officer that resulted in her arrest and death in a Texas jail cell.
  • The many ways to be part of a movement: The movie also does a good job of depicting the many different ways in which blacks participated in the civil rights movements. Not everyone marched in protests; some, like Mary Jackson, petitioned the county to allow her to take advanced science courses at the all-white high school in town and went on to be the first black female engineer at NASA. The movie does a great job showing that it takes a spectrum of efforts to bring about change in society.
  • The power of privilege: There were many moments in the film where the privilege of the white characters in the film was overwhelming. Some, like the supervisor of the white computers, played by Kristin Dunst, go nearly the entire film unaware of their privilege and even overt acts of racism. The movie also sets some characters up with the opportunity to use their privilege for change; the director of the Space Task Force, played by Kevin Costner. After he yells at Kathrine Golble Johnson for her long bathroom breaks and then discovers her reasons, he rages as the “Colored Restroom” sign with a crowbar, desegregating bathrooms on the campus with the line, “We all pee the same color here.” The film makes it clear that it often takes someone with privilege to tear down the system of privilege.Often that person doesn’t even have virtuous motives like equality and justice. Sometimes, like this case, the boss just wants his employee to be able to spend more time behind her desk. For more on this, I found this article illuminating:
    When the women of ‘Hidden Figures’ needed The ManUpdate: I also read another interesting pieve in Vice, Space So White, that raises some good questions about why the screenwriters felt the need to add some scenes where the white boss character “saves” the black heroine from segregated bathrooms, and lets her into the control room during the launch. Neither of these incidents actually took place. 
  • A great picture of the early days of electro-mechanical computing, with some guidance for today: One of my favorite story lines is the work to install an “IBM” to take over many of the calculating duties from the human “computers”. The early history of computing seems to be on full display complete with punch-cards, oscilloscopes, racks of machines, green and white line paper for printers, and jokes about not being able to fit the equipment through the door. Here’s a machine that does 24,000 calculations per second and will likely make all human computers obsolete. But Dorothy Vaughn sees opportunity here; she realizes that we will always need people to program the computers, and so she grabs a copy of a book on FORTRAN (cleverly subtitled as the “language of the future”) and proceeds to teach her entire department the fundamentals of programming so that they are ready to jump right in and help when the opportunity presents itself. It seems to me that this is exactly the lesson we need in today’s world where robots and machines capable of performing legal discovery or reading x-rays makes us fear for the future of even highly skilled jobs like lawyers and radiologists.
  • Math in the movie: I mostly loved how math was portrayed in the movie, starting in the very first scenes where the young Katherine was sitting in the hallway and naming and mentally manipulating all the shapes she saw in a stained glass window, followed by a scene where she was asked to solve an algebra problem involving the product of two quadratics. Her explanation of her solution was thoughtful, clear and sounded just like a promising young mathematician should.Later in the film, there were a number of great discussions centered around mathematical problems. Katherine Johnson also talked about needing to “invent new mathematics”, which was a wonderful thing to hear in the middle of a scene. They talked about the “ancient” Euler’s method as a possible solution, and Katherine went back to her office and grabbed an old textbook to study it further, just as I would expect any good mathematician to do. The movie also made it clear that mathematics was about hard work and collaboration, not insights of genius.One of thing I really appreciated is how accepting friends and family seemed to be of the main characters’ love of mathematics, and didn’t paint them as freakishly abnormal because they understood mathematics and found enjoyment in it. The movie didn’t try to overplay up any sort of “nerd” angle for any of the characters, nor did it go all “A Beautiful Mind” with the math sequences where animated equations and mathematics were flying through the sky.

This was a great film. I think it’s a must see for every science teacher, and then I think our challenge is to figure out why these incredible women and their contributions to science were left out of our educations. We can also bring their stories back for our students. I think this is a film that can inspire children of any age, and I plan to show it to my 6-year-old daughter. This film also invites its audience to dig deeper and learn more about this history, and I think this provides a unique opportunity for science teachers. What if we were the ones who created a teaching guide and lesson plans that helped students to understand the history of human computers, how one goes about calculating the trajectory of a rocket launch, the changing demographics of NASA, and the challenges underrepresented minorities still face in the sciences today?

Lastly, and most importantly, I personally want to approach this work with a great deal of humility and a strong desire to help, not lead. This is not my story to tell, and I know there are many other women of color out there who are more than capable of leading the way on this. Here are a few I’ve found who are worth following:

Jedidah Isler is an astrophysicist, and she’s been tweeting about the film:

Jeanette Epps is a current NASA Astronaut:

Here’s a great discussion on periscope from Film Critic Rebecca Theodore about black women geniuses: