Butterflies, Mathematicians, and Creativity

This is Katherine Johnson. I know it looks like a monarch butterfly egg, and it is, but its name is Katherine Johnson. It is not every butterfly egg that is fortunate enough to be named after an early NASA mathematician, but this one is.

Katherine—the butterfly version—was named by my four-year-old friend, who holds Katherine Johnson—the mathematician version—as a personal hero. Truth is, her mom and I had to laugh about the probability of a four-year-old naming her newest pet after a mathematician. But how did that happen, and why does it matter?

My young friend, it must be admitted, is exceptionally bright. Finding reading materials for bright early readers can be challenging. They need to read things that challenge their skills and intelligence but that don’t demand emotional maturity beyond their years. Often, this combination of needs can be met by non-fiction. In this case, the series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls has come to the rescue. The books have introduced her, and the adults in her life, to women of accomplishment in any field you can name. I’m delighted to see my young friend understanding the many things that women can do. I hope she continues to believe it.

I’ve written before about how early differences emerge in girls’ and boys’ expectations about who is and isn’t smart. In one study*, researchers found that at age five girls were likely to choose female images as people who were “really really smart,” but by age 6 or 7, that was less likely to be true. Naturally, if young girls are less likely to believe people like them are intelligent, they will be less likely to seek after careers that require intelligence and creativity. Where would NASA have been if Katherine Johnson thought math was too hard for her?

Somehow, the fact that Ms. Johnson’s namesake pet is a monarch caterpillar seems particularly fitting. We need young people who can envision themselves transforming from awkward school children into something wonderful. To do that, they need stories of men and women who did just that, people who struggled and worked and wondered and sometimes failed, but still did amazing things. I want my young friend to continue to believe that one day she can soar like a butterfly.

As much of the country contemplating the beginning of the school year, we face many unexpected things. Finding a way to begin again amidst a fresh COVID surge is daunting. Figuring out how to teach safely and how to help students recover from the pains of isolation are essential teaching goals, despite the fact they are unlikely to appear on any state tests. One place to begin is with stories of those who have gone before, whatever your subject matter. Every discipline has people who wonder, who struggle, persist, and eventually achieve. Envisioning success after failure and pushing on through hard times can give students models for challenges great and small. Carrying Katherine Johnson’s story close to her may help my young friend when she is tempted to think her wings are not strong enough. I hope so.

PS If you’d like an introduction to Katherine Johnson appropriate for elementary students (or curious 4-year-olds) you can find it here.

*Bian, L., Leslie, S, & Cimpian, A. (January, 2017). Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science, 355, 389-391.

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