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The Sky is Not the Limit

Third grade students in Brita Willis’ class created a museum in honor of groundbreaking mathematician Katherine Johnson.

It can be hard to predict what will capture the attention of 3rd grade students. So when her class became fascinated with the life and career of Katherine Johnson, a pioneering Black female mathematician, Brita Willis ran with it. After reading the book “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly and Winifred Conkling, Willis noticed that many of her students felt a connection to Johnson. Johnson was featured in the book (along with three other Black women) for her calculations as a NASA employee, which were critical to the success of the first, and subsequent, crewed space flights. “The students recognized the significance of Katherine’s life and what it meant for the future of African American women in STEM careers,” said Willis. “As a class, they decided that her life was definitely one worth celebrating.”

Students showcase the Apollo 11 lunar module replica that they build while studying Katherine Johnson.

The best way to celebrate her life, they thought, was to create a museum in her honor. The students determined which areas of her career to highlight, including her work designing John Glenn’s orbit of the Earth, and her calculations related to Apollo 11’s lunar module. They then chose the areas that interested them the most, began their research, and created exhibits ranging from physical models to posters, and even a movie script about her life. Students also memorized five-sentence monologues related to their exhibits, and invited faculty, staff, and other students to experience the museum.

Not only did the students learn about Johnson’s remarkable life and career, they gained valuable experience in teamwork, research, public speaking, reading, and writing. “Their ability to share their learning with their peers and adults demonstrated their understanding,” said Willis. “But watching

them display kindness and compassion makes my job even more rewarding.”

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