Novadeen Thomas, a math teacher at Alpha Academy, took a break from discussing numbers – sort of – with her sixth-grade students Thursday.
They forewent their books and the problems on the board and talked about Katherine Johnson, a retired African-American physicist and mathematician from NASA who was integral in astronaut John Glenn’s orbit of Earth in 1962 and the Apollo Moon landing program.
Many of the students beamed when they mentioned what they learned from Johnson such as her perseverance to achieve after she was born in a small West Virginia town.
Jaiden Pittman, 11, took away the same, but something more. She was among many students who met Johnson last year.
“She gave me that beautiful smile, and it’s one of my favorite things about her,” Jaiden said with a wide grin. “She’s the best person you can meet.”
She added, “She became an outstanding leader because she is a human calculator. We’re still growing to be outstanding leaders, like our mission statement says, and she is one.”
The conversation was one of many since late last year throughout the school about Johnson’s impact on not just the nation, but the academy of roughly 900 students. School staff plan to take more than 400 students to see the film “Hidden Figures,” which opens Friday. The film details Johnson and two other African-American women, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who made contributions to NASA and its role in the space race.
Alpha Academy also held a groundbreaking ceremony in February 2015 for its Katherine G. Johnson STEM Institute at its Raeford Road campus; last month, 90 students were inducted into the school’s STEM society.
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.
Susan Slocum, the school’s director of operations, said there was reason to imbed Johnson in the academy’s history.
“Her character is impeccable,” she said. “With her, it’s about helping others, and she’s always wanted to share her knowledge. It was never a selfish gain.”
Eleven-year-old Zaviyon Leak remembered the first thing Johnson said to him when they met last year.
“It was ‘How are you?’ and that was it,” he said laughing. “But I’ve learned from her to try to never give up and to try my best.”
Fellow student Caira Cline wants to become a marine biologist. She credits Johnson for helping her stick with her goal.
“Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not good enough because of your gender or your race,” Caira said. “I put her passion and love for numbers toward everything I do.”
“But how did she do all those things with her mind?” asked Jada Marcano, 11, referencing Johnson’s nickname as a “human computer.” “How did she do that? I can’t even do that, but she’s inspired me to be more confident.”
“It’s about self-motivation,” she said. “What I want them to take away is that they can really motivate themselves. And they don’t have to wait for a pat on the back to do it.”
Staff writer Alicia Banks can be reached at email@example.com or 486-2728.