A new book club of about 400 high school girls from across the Tulsa area got to see their book come to life on the silver screen and some real-life role models for careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
“Empower Her,” a three-month initiative of Oklahoma Women in STEM and sponsored by Tulsa Regional STEM Alliance, rallied high-schoolers from eight area high schools around the previously untold story of three African-American women who played critical behind-the-scenes roles in NASA’s historic 1962 launch of John Glenn into orbit.
On Tuesday, they were treated to a showing of the new movie version of the book “Hidden Figures,” and then they heard from a retired NASA astronaut, a mechanical engineer from NASA’s Johnson Space Center and local women in STEM career fields.
“I joined the book club because I love reading anyway, but it was so nice to see women of color shown in a positive light,” said De’Asia Thomas, a sophomore at Union High School.
Thomas has dreams of becoming a mechanical engineer and is interested in medical technology and safety gear for athletes like herself.
“I want to develop better braces for athletes because if you tear your ACL or a meniscus, you’re out,” said the varsity basketball player. “I’m interested in that because of people like me whose parents can’t afford to send them to college. We need sports to help us achieve that goal.”
Retired NASA astronaut Col. Paul Lockhart was a big draw at the event, sharing with the girls his insights from two flights on the Space Shuttle Endeavor.
The girls wanted to know about the daily doldrums of preflight training, the physical demands of space flight and even what astronauts eat in space.
But only one question made Lockhart laugh: “Did you ever have a moment where you said, ‘Why am I doing this? Should I give up and become an insurance salesman?’”
His answer was “no” because he was carried through every obstacle and challenge by his long-held dream of space flight.
Lockhart told the girls he even told his Air Force ROTC mentor in college, who challenged him to ponder his level of commitment to his career goals, that “I would clean the toilets on the space shuttle if they would let me fly it.”
In attendance were students from the Tulsa, Collinsville, Glenpool, Jenks, Owasso and Union school districts, plus the Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences — a Tulsa Public Schools-sponsored charter high school — and Metro Christian Academy.
A discussion by STEM role models about pathways to college and career got the all-female panel members a celebrity reception at the conclusion of the event.
In the lobby of the Warren Theatre in Broken Arrow, the girls crowded around NASA mechanical engineer Elizabeth Smith, WPX geologist Danielle Martin, General Mills quality engineer Rikki Jones, ONEOK Partners energy manager Susan Crenshaw and Williams benefits analyst Harlan Ross seeking autographs in their “Hidden Figures” books.
Among them were about 16 students in Booker T. Washington High School’s International Baccalaureate program, who have banded together in a chat group they call “IB Women of Color.”
“I thought this book club would be a great way to bring us together and see powerful women,” said Carolina Rubio, a junior.
The students said they especially related to the female panelists’ accounts of being among the few women and/or racial minorities in their respective workplaces because they count themselves among small groups in students enrolled in Booker T.’s advanced science and math courses.
“It was nice seeing someone that looks like me up there,” said Brianna Davis, also a junior. “I’m the only African-American in my AP physics class.”
“It was also really interesting to hear that they had their own problems but they still made it,” chimed in junior Stephanie Jimenez.
Karen Harmon, library media specialist at Booker T., said she hopes to keep the STEM-themed book club going now that it has been established at her school with a total of 37 students.
“I’m hoping to build on this because it was so cool to be sitting toward the back of the theater and to look across this sea of girls reading the same book, experiencing the same thing and getting inspiration from women who are already in these fields they’re interested in.”
Panelists Elizabeth Smith and Rikki Jones shared with the girls a similar kind of advice about how they have succeeded in their careers. Smith said when she was first hired, she was one of the three youngest engineers ever assigned to the space station program, “and there was almost a riot.”
Her advice was simply, “Never, never, never give up.”
Jones told the girls the legacy of NASA greats Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, whose story is told in “Hidden Figures,” is something she has seen make or break careers.
“How do you take ‘No?’ How bad do you want it?” Jones said, noting that some people are deterred while others are not. “There are going to be ‘No’s and roadblocks. You have to have motivation to get past the roadblock. … Some use it as ammunition and fuel to get past it.”
Afterward, she laughed at being mobbed for autographs.
“I’m really a regular person,” she said. “But I get it because I remember having speakers on campus when I was at Oklahoma State University to help motivate us and provide guidance and perspective. You can’t buy it, really!”