Reading Hidden Figures with Virtual Book Clubs

October 30, 2018

Building upon the popular 21st Century Fox film Hidden Figures, ECA created a series of Bureau-wide “Hidden No More” programs to highlight the contributions women make in STEM fields. These programs included American Film Showcase support to screen the film at U.S. Embassies around the world, a STEM-themed International Visitor Leadership Program, and an ECA Alumni Affairs on-line talk show with the book’s author Margot Lee Shetterly, along with the Collaboratory’s first virtual book club pilot.

The Greensboro, North Carolina Public Library, which had been using the book as part of their “One Book/One City” program, served as an ideal U.S. partner, and was instrumental in coordinating domestic book club participants which were then connected to readers in Manila, Managua, Monrovia, and Kabul. The Collaboratory chose the Greensboro Public Library as the U.S. partner based on the community’s history with the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, particularly the Woolworth Lunch Counter Sit-ins that occurred in Greensboro in 1960. This gave the Greensboro participants a remarkable connection to the book’s content, and the participants brought with them this unique perspective to the virtual exchange. Including Greensboro in the book club allowed the Collaboratory to continue to advance innovative approaches of sharing all Americans’ stories and provided under-served communities opportunities to exchange with the world in a meaningful and cost-effective way.

Throughout facilitated book discussions, which included both synchronous virtual sessions as well as asynchronous connections through social media and collaborative digital platforms, teenagers and young adults at each location shared their insights on STEM education, women’s empowerment, and space exploration. In addition to discussing the contributions of women and minorities in scientific research, the virtual book club allowed for cross-cultural dialogue and provided a platform for involving diverse U.S. participants as well as an opportunity for international participants to learn about American history and culture in a new way. The pilot’s capstone featured two prominent guest speakers: NASA engineer Amy Cassidy who designs space capsules for re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere and former astronaut CJ Sturkow. The speakers gave participants a fascinating glimpse into Hidden Figures’ themes, including the future of space exploration and gender inequalities in the industry.

Through this pilot, the Collaboratory demonstrated that virtual books clubs have the capacity to engage U.S. and international groups in policy relevant conversations while promoting English language literacy. An effective way to advance global or regional policy priorities with diverse audiences, virtual book clubs can strengthen ties between posts and U.S. communities and other geographic areas with relevant ties to a country or region.