‘Star’ students

NJPAC’s screening of Hidden Figures demonstrates how the arts complement STEM.


There aren’t too many Monday mornings with the capacity to restore your faith in the human spirit, but September 25 was an exception at NJPAC. In Prudential Hall, more than 1,300 students, on furlough from their classrooms for a few hours, shared a unique educational experience: a wide-screen showing of Hidden Figures, followed by a panel discussion.


Last year’s Oscar-nominated best picture, Hidden Figures was unreeled as part of the PSE&G True Diversity Film Series, supported by PSEG Foundation and the Leon and Toby Cooperman Family Foundation. The assembly of elementary students and high-schoolers from 21 districts was mostly representative of Greater Newark, yet buses arrived from as far north as Ringwood.


Communal cheering and applause accompanied the film’s dramatic moments, and there were many. Director-writer Ted Melfi’s blockbuster, based on a true story, is set during the space race of the Cold War, when getting the Mercury Seven aloft became the unrelenting mission at NASA. Within the doors at Langley, and practically invisible to those working in the building, were three African-American women – “human computers” – whose skills helped rocket John Glenn into orbit.


Mary Jackson, portrayed by Janelle Monae, became NASA’s first black female engineer after fighting her way into court to take courses at an all-white school. Math prodigy Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) endured sexism and the scorn of her colleagues while scribbling feverishly to unlock the calculations vital to a successful launch. Pioneering computer whiz Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), denied a job promotion for years, went on to become one of the first experts in Fortran, the then-embryonic computer programming language.


Study guides provided by the Department of Arts Education enabled students to familiarize themselves with the era, so they were well-prepared to submit questions in advance to the panel, moderated by Marcia Wilson Brown, Vice Chancellor for External and Governmental Relations at Rutgers-Newark. The trio of speakers included 13-year-old Nia Williams of Newark, a student at Team Academy Charter School and an aspiring engineer, who participated in the Aviation Career Education academy program of the Newark Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP).


Dr. Aprille Ericsson, an aerospace engineer at NASA and the first African-American woman to both receive a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Howard University and a Ph.D. in engineering at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, was acquainted with the late Mary Jackson and is friends with Katherine Johnson, who is 99. She added that both mathematicians believed in inspiring and mentoring young people in their fields to expand their legacy. An athlete in her youth, Ericsson told students she considered math a muscle of the brain and encouraged them to “shoot for the moon, but if you miss, you still touch the stars.”


Pilot Carole Hopson, a first officer for Express-Jet Airlines and a Vice Chairwoman on the OBAP board, didn’t take her first aviation lesson until the age of 36. Still, she noted, she’s been nicknamed “Unicorn” because of the scarcity of black women who fly planes for a living.


“When I step into the cockpit and close the door, that airplane doesn’t know I’m a woman,” she said emphatically, before departing NJPAC to log three short flights that day.


The morning’s welcoming remarks were delivered by NJPAC President and CEO John Schreiber and donors Leon and Toby Cooperman, who first proposed the idea for the Hidden Figures program. Rick Thigpen, Vice President – State Governmental Affairs of PSEG Services Corp., told students that his company is committed to supporting tomorrow’s leaders in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).


“Your country needs you to be the best and brightest you can be,” he said. “We need your talents and skills just the way NASA needed those young ladies.”


Sept. 27, 2017