Katherine Johnson’s inspiring life is a model for all generations to come

If women and girls in this country are making any progress on shattering the negative stereotypes of what they can do in mathematics and engineering, they have Katherine Johnson to thank for helping to pave the way.

Johnson was a pioneer at NASA and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics between 1930 and 1970.

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She, along with other black women, helped make critical calculations that launched our astronauts into orbit.

But as important, the challenges they fought through inspired generations of women, and especially women of color, who came after them to believe that they too could succeed.

We join a nation in mourning Johnson’s death Monday at the age of 101. Hers was a life well-lived — an example of how talent, perseverance and hard work can benefit all mankind.

It’s encouraging that the world finally came to recognize this important pioneer and her colleagues. Johnson, Christine Darden, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were celebrated in the movie “Hidden Figures.”

Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 from President Barack Obama.

And all four were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal when President Donald Trump signed the Hidden Figures Act into law last year.

They’ve received such accolades because they represent the possibilities of overcoming obstacles and the potential for success in STEM fields for women and girls.

It’s that spirit that led Dallas ISD to open Solar Prep, the all-girls school focusing on science, technology, engineering and math.

It’s the reason the district has put so much effort into its P-Tech programs to offer pathways to STEM degrees to match up the hundreds of available jobs with skilled workers who can fill them.

We know we still have a long way to go to improve the number of women in such jobs. Women are still underrepresented in STEM fields, with estimates of about a quarter of the workforce. The percentage of women of color is far less than that.

Studies show that gender biases and stereotypes that girls are not good in math present barriers that continue to block women’s progress.

But these are lucrative fields that drive our economy and can help women earn more to potentially close the gender pay gap. Not to mention that women can contribute mightily to advancements in technology and engineering.

The Hidden Figures bill authored by U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas credited Katherine Johnson and other black women with contributing to World War II aircraft testing, supersonic flight, the Voyager probes and landing the first humans on the moon in 1969.

“The stories of these four women exemplify the experiences of hundreds of women who worked as computers, mathematicians and engineers at NACA beginning in the 1930s,” the bill’s text reads.

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Who knows how many more Katherine Johnsons might be out there today. We have to do everything we can to find them and give them the opportunity to succeed.

— The Dallas Morning News

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