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Sci-Fi Flix: Fact or Fiction:Hidden Figures (2016)

Expert Commentators

Hidden Figures (2016)
Sunday, February 21, 2021 @ 7pm
Expert Commentators: Dr. Cynthia Farthing (Mathematics), Dr. Marge Murray (Rhetoric & Mathematics), Safeya Siddig, and Adeline Barron. 
Co-sponsored by: Engineering DEI Council



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Hidden Figures

A 2016 American biographical drama film directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder. It is loosely based on the 2016 non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly about African American female mathematicians who worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during the Space Race.

This screening is co-sponsored by the College of  Engineering DEI Council

Movie Facts & Fiction

Katherine Johnson has received several honors for her “33 years at NASA [as] a pioneer who broke the barriers of race and gender, showing generations of young people that everyone can excel in math and science, and reach for the stars.” – President Barack Obama at the Medal of Freedom Ceremony. In 2018, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) named a building in her honor – the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at their Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Using John Glenn’s orbit of the Earth, February 20, 1962, as a milestone, the events of Hidden Figures are set in 1960’s Virginia. The film displays the racism and segregation that existed during the period. When John Glenn’s flight occurred, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream Speech” and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was still over a year away, held August 28, 1963.

One of the more memorable scenes in the movie was not accurate as Katherine Johnson’s supervisor did not tear down the “Colored” bathrooms signs, she simply used the “White” bathroom.

Iowa Alumni of Note

Lilia Abron, a charter member of the Honor Wall for the College of Engineering, was the first African-American woman in the nation, and the third woman at the University of Iowa, to receive a doctorate in chemical engineering in 1972. The HistoryMakers has also interviewed her, where she explores her childhood, educational experiences, and her path start the first African-American owned environmental engineering firm, PEER Consultants. In 1995, Abron partnered with others to found PEER Africa which specializes in upgrading and transforming informal communities to resilient, sustainable formal communities. They emphasize empowering poor communities in Africa, and the developing world, to take charge and control of their livelihoods in a responsible manner.


Archibald (Archie) Alexander, of Ottumwa, Iowa, was the first African-American to receive a Civil Engineering Degree from the University of Iowa in 1912. Following graduation Alexander would lead a successful business-life where he worked as a foreman for a bridge-building company, studying bridge design in London, England, and starting 2 different firms. His firm was contracted for several University projects – the central heating plant, its power plant, and a major steam tunnel beneath the Iowa River. Outside of the University, his firm was responsible for the construction of the Whitehurst Freeway, the Tidal Basin Bridge near the Jefferson Memorial in DC, an extension to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and the Moton Airfield Flight School Facilities, where the Tuskegee Airmen trained. He was also politically active with the Republican Party where he campaigned for Dwight D Eisenhower in 1952. In 1954, Eisenhower appointed Alexander to be the Governor of the US Virgin Islands. Archie Alexander was inducted into the to the Honor Wall for the College of Engineering in 2010. Upon his death in 1958 he left a trust to establish engineering scholarships at the University of Iowa, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and Howard University. His papers are held by the University of Iowa Special Collections.  


In Dr. Philip G. Hubbard’s autobiography, My Iowa Journey: The Life Story of the University of Iowa’s First African American Professorhe explains that the process for selecting his first position following completion of the Ph.D. in 1954 as “I was interviewed for jobs with Univac Computers in the Twin Cities, IBM in Endicott, New York, and Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. The offer from the Institute of Technology at Northwestern was so attractive that we were ready to accept if satisfactory housing could be found. When we looked for a home, the influence of ‘red-lining’ was starkly demonstrated: the only homes the real estate agent would show us were badly run down and in unattractive neighborhoods. They cost less than we could have afforded, and we knew that the agent would not dare to show them to a white professor's family. Our final choice, the University of Iowa, was based on its favorable climate for the developing children, congenial colleagues, and an open community with many cosmopolitan features.” (85) Ultimately, Dr. Hubbard would spend 55 years with the University of Iowa between his Bachelors, Masters, Doctorate Degrees, years as a faculty member, and the first African-American Vice-President at a Big Ten University. He was a charter member of the Honor Wall for the College of Engineering and Hubbard Park next to the Iowa Memorial Union has been named in his honor.

Looking to the Future

The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) 2025 Strategic Plan to Dramatically change the Face of Engineering by 2025 has set out their 10-year goal to graduate 10,000 Black engineers annually by 2025. When the Plan was written in 2014, African Americans accounted for 5% of the science and engineering workforce and only 3.5% of recipients of engineering degrees awarded annually. To achieve the goal NSBE will strive to triple the number of Black engineering graduates annually. For the 2019-2020 NSBE Annual Report, Jocelyn Jackson (NSBE 2019-20 National Chair) and Karl Reid (NSBE Executive Director) provided the update that they are over halfway to their goal with 5,600 Black engineering graduates annually – up about 2000 from the 2014 report.

  • NSBE has over 500 chapters and 22,000 active members. The University of Iowa NSBE Chapter focuses “the mission of the National Society of Black Engineers is dedicated to increasing the number of black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally, and positively impact their community” by holding career development workshops with local companies. Workshops include mock interviews, resume building, and networking events.

Per the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) Fact Sheet, women in the Engineering Workforce earn $0.90 for every $1 male earns and are only 13% of the workforce. Between 2013 and 2018, there was a 65% increase in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in engineering and computer science. Even with that progress, in 2018, females accounted for 21.9% of Engineering Bachelor’s Degrees (ASEE “By the Numbers 2018”).

The American Society of Mechanical Engineer’s published “Why is Diversity in Engineering a Major Opportunity” by Kayla Matthews. Matthews cites several resources to make the case that greater diversity in the workforce leads to more innovation, greater profitability, happier customers, stronger ethics, and confronting the fact that in 2011, for the first time, “greater than 50 percent of newborns in the U.S. were non-white.” Simply put, it is in the best interests of companies to focus on diversity and pushing to change systems that are limiting the growth of employees from minority backgrounds.