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Katherine Johnson NASA Research Mathematician - Lesson Plans K-12 and Resources for Kids

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

Katherine Johnson: A computer that was instrumental in putting American into space!

Before computers were machines they were people. The job of “computer” involved doing mathematical and scientific calculations by hand. This job usually fell to women. Katherine Johnson's story is one of growing up as an African American women during segregation and overcoming racism, sexism and adversity to work at NASA.

Katherine Johnson, NASA , teaching resources, black history

Photograph © Joylette Hylicandk

Teaching the story of Katherine Johnson is teaching black history, women's history and the history of the American Space Race. If you are preparing to travel to Florida, with stops at Kennedy Space Center or even Mission Space at Walt Disney World, learning about Katherine Johnson's important contributions will prepare your student for that EDventure.

Middle Grade Teaching lessons plans and Resources

Lets start with Katherine Johnson's autobiography for young readers, Reaching for the Moon The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson. This autobiography incorporates the space race, black history, women’s history, American history, primary sources, biographies/autobiographies, with a good deal of STEM connections to boot. Aimed at Grades 5 and up, Katherine tells her personal story, set in the historical context of a segregated America. Major events such as Emmitt Tillis murder, lunch counter sit-ins, and school integration are discussed in an accessible way for children. Her importance within the America's race to space in engaging and inspiring. The publishing company has provided a curriculum resource guide . This provides some interesting discussion questions and essay prompts for later middle school students, but is not a comprehensive resource.

Here is a video that will introduce Katherine Johnson to your students. (5:20)

OUTLIER The Story of Katherine Johnson is a documentary that I would recommend showing students after they have read the autobiography.

Outlier: The Story of Katherine Johnson 2018

Summary: “Outlier,” a documentary that focuses solely on Katherine Johnson, an African-American mathematician who was born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., graduated high school at age 14 and college at age 18, and went on to famously become a physicist, space scientist and mathematician for NASA. From America's first attempt at manned space flights to the Space Shuttle program, Katherine Johnson was an integral part of NASA. Includes an interview with Johnson, whose life was profiled in the movie "Hidden Figures”

Length: 56 minutes

Available: PBS, Amazon Prime


Elementary School Teaching Resources and Lesson plans

Katherine Johnson along with her daughters, Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore, have written a picture book for K-3 graders. Charnelle Pinkney Barlow provides the illustrations. This would be an excellent autobiography to use for students too young for the the Young Readers version of her story, Reaching for the Moon discussed above. In One Step Further, Katherine describes the journey she took as a black Southern Woman during the Civil Rights Era to ultimately have a job at NASA. The resources available at the back of the book provide an excellent, age appropriate explanation of Racial Segregation in the United States, which is important context for the students to understand. The glossary, timeline and more detailed biographical information about Katherine Johnson all combine to make this a must have book.

black history, katherine Johnson autobiography, elementary grades, read aloud, video
  • Author: Katherine Johnson, Joylette Hylick, Katherine Moore

  • Illustrator: Charnelle Pinkney Barlow

  • Publisher : National Geographic Kids; Illustrated edition (January 5, 2021)

  • Language : English

  • Hardcover : 48 pages

  • ISBN-10 : 1426371934

  • ISBN-13 : 978-1426371936

  • Reading age : 4 - 8 years

  • Grade level : Preschool - 3

  • Summary: "Johnson's own empowering narrative is complemented by the recollections of her two daughters about their mother's work and insights about how she illuminated their paths, including one daughter's fight for civil rights and another's journey to become a NASA mathematician herself. The narrative gracefully weaves together Johnson's personal story, her influence on her daughters' formative years, her and her daughters' fight for civil rights, and her lasting impact on NASA and space exploration. Filled with personal reflections, exclusive family archival photos, and striking illustrations, readers will be immersed in this deeply personal portrayal of female empowerment, women in STEM, and the breaking down of race barriers across generations. Historical notes, photo/illustration notes, and a time line put the story into historical and modern-day context"

Read aloud video of book One Step Further My Story of Math, the Moon and a Lifelong Mission

More fantastic Picture Books about Katherine Johnson:

Katherine Johnson, elementary age, biography, teacher resource

A Computer Called Katherine

Author: Suzanne Slade

Illustrator: Veronica Miller Jamison

  • Publisher : Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; First Edition (March 12, 2019)

  • Language : English

  • Hardcover : 40 pages

  • ISBN-10 : 0316435171

  • ISBN-13 : 978-0316435178

  • Reading age : 4 - 8 years

  • Lexile measure : 760L

  • Grade level : Preschool - 3

Book read aloud video of A Computer Called Katherine


This is a fantastic read aloud focusing on the story of how Katherine Johnson helped safe Apollo 13.

Apollo 13, Katherine Johnson, black history, teaching resource, elementary

Counting on Katherine

Author: Helaine Becker

Illustrator: Dow Phumiruk

  • Publisher : Henry Holt and Co. (BYR); Illustrated edition (June 19, 2018)

  • Language : English

  • Hardcover : 40 pages

  • ISBN-10 : 1250137527

  • ISBN-13 : 978-1250137524

  • Reading age : 5 - 9 years

  • Lexile measure : 710L

  • Grade level : 1 - 2


NASA Resources:

When Computers were Human - article for Grades 6-8

From Hidden Modern Figures - many articles about women computers

Science and Math lessons to support scientific concepts in Katherine Johnson's autobiography:

What is an Orbit? - article for Grades K-4

What is an Orbit? - article for Grades 5-8

NASA, K-4 Lesson Plan, science, math, graphing, rockets

"How Far Will It Go?" - graphing lesson Grades K-4

Soda-Straw Rockets - Lesson Plan for Grades 4-8


High School Resource:

Here is a video of Katherine Johnson speaking to PBS station WHRO's Cathy Lewis in 2011.(26:03) There is a fantastic introduction to Katherine at the beginning of the video, and some interesting reflections on current ideas and events.

High School Book:

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

The 2016 movie Hidden Figures, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, is where most people learned the story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson.

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

Author: Margot Lee Shetterly

  • Publisher : William Morrow Paperbacks; Media tie-in edition (December 6, 2016)

  • Language : English

  • Paperback : 368 pages

  • ISBN-10 : 0062363603

  • ISBN-13 : 978-0062363602

  • Lexile measure : 1350L

Here is a publisher provided Teacher's

guide with Chapter Discussion Questions and writing prompts.

Teaching with Movies -

The 2016 movie Hidden Figures, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, is where most people learned the story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. There are some interesting resources available that use movies to teach.

Teaching with Movies - this site has some worksheets

Some NASA links to support the Movie, Hidden Figures.;

Finally some math and science lessons for high school students:

Let's Go to Mars! Calculating Launch Windows - Grades 9-12 Problem solving

Common Core: HSG.GPE.A. , HSG.C.A

Gravity: It's What Keeps Us Together Grades 9-12 Algebra, Planet Science

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