OPINION

Honor Katherine Johnson’s Legacy by Empowering a New Generation of ‘Hidden Figures’

This week, our nation mourns the loss of Katherine Johnson, a heroic woman born in rural West Virginia who overcame segregation and whose mathematical genius paved the way for U.S. supremacy in space, science, and technology.

A 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, her story was made famous in the book and movie “Hidden Figures,” helping to inspire a new generation of girls and others from communities underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workforce.

As we remember Johnson’s extraordinary life, we as a nation should also commit ourselves to building on her legacy by empowering a new generation of “hidden figures” to lead us into the future.

A diverse and inclusive education and workforce “Hidden Figures Agenda” should address the following:

•    Stronger funding for computer science education. Today’s national computer science education landscape is, sadly, one of haves and have-nots — 90 percent of parents want their children to study computer science, but only 45 percent of high schools teach the subject. Overall, only one out of four K-12 schools teach any computer science. While state and local governments are best positioned to design specific education curriculums and programs tailored to their populations, the federal government should play a role in supporting the students who are falling through the cracks. To that end, Congress should dedicate annual federal funding of at least $250 million for computer science education to help fill the critical gaps that remain in K-12 schools across our nation.

•    More opportunities for women and girls in computer science. In 1984, the U.S. achieved our all-time high whereby 37 percent of computer science graduates were women. Over time, our nation has slipped and, 36 years later, not come close to that high mark again. The goal of consistently engaging girls in STEM and computer science education throughout their academic careers is why the tech industry championed and is committed to the effective implementation of the recently enacted Building Blocks of STEM Act by Senators Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.).

•    Federal support for communities underrepresented in STEM. According to news accounts, each year Johnson’s father drove her and her siblings to high school and college at the historically black West Virginia State College. Today, our nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and other Minority Serving Institutions continue preparing individuals from underrepresented communities to be leaders in and valuable contributors to the modern economy. These “hidden figures” recently received a boost with the enactment of the Fostering Undergraduate Talent by Unlocking Resources for Education (FUTURE) Act, which makes permanent $255 million in annual funding for HBCUs and MSIs. More can be done to support them by reauthorizing the Higher Education Act and supporting policies likes the MSI STEM Achievement Act by Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson and Michael Waltz.

In addition, we know there are many more “hidden figures” across our nation who deserve our support in identifying and nurturing their talents to help them achieve success. For example:

•    Enabling veterans to use their unique skills in civilian life. With 80 percent of our nation’s veterans experiencing a period of unemployment when transitioning to civilian life, the recently enacted Supporting Veterans in STEM Careers Act by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Rep. Neal Dunn (R-Fla.) will help them match the unique skills developed during their time in the armed forces to careers in the STEM workforce. The Support for Veterans in Effective Apprenticeships Act is another worthy effort in this area.

•    Empowering persons with disabilities to join the STEM workforce. When it comes to persons with disabilities in our workforce, we are only just beginning to unlock their talents for all the world to see. More can be done to empower these hidden figures, including passage of Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson’s (D-Texas) and Frank Lucas’s (R-Okla.) STEM Opportunities Act, which boosts STEM studies and research careers among several underrepresented communities, including persons with disabilities.

•    Connecting individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder to skills for success in the modern workforce. In the next 10 years, approximately 500,000 autistic youth will become adults. The recently reauthorized Autism CARES Act helps ensure the federal government is doing its part to provide early detection and support to the increasing number of individuals with ASD, while a 2018 career and technical education law boosted programs that provide people with autism with skills training and valuable work experience to facilitate their transition to adulthood and the workforce. Effective implementation of these laws as well as more private sector-led efforts will help these “hidden figures” continue showing why they are an indispensable and growing part of our workforce.

As was the case during the space race of the 1960s depicted in “Hidden Figures,” securing America’s global innovation leadership in the 21st century will require us to step up our game in STEM. We must tear down all the obstacles that stand in the way of bringing out the best of our homegrown American talent and promote education and skills attainment at every stage of the American worker’s life.

Katherine Johnson’s life showed us how our nation can only reach its full potential if we embrace the diversity of our nation and bring out the best of all talented and capable individuals who have too often been overlooked, ignored, and left behind. Going forward, one way our deeds can pay tribute to her life is by doing more to identify and cultivate the “hidden figures” in our classrooms and workplaces to lead us into the future.

Alex Burgos is senior vice president of federal policy, government relations, and communications of TechNet, the national, bipartisan network of technology CEOs and senior executives that promotes the growth of the innovation economy.

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