California Educator

November / December 2016

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Standing on Shoulders Christine Darden followed in the steps of others, then blazed her own trail By Dina Martin C H R I S T I N E D A R D E N always liked "knowing things." As a child, she remembers, her mother gave her a talking doll, which she promptly cut up to examine how it worked. "My dad taught me to work problems at an early age. I was able to change tires on the car and use a coat hanger to make brakes for a bicy- cle," she says. That abiding interest in the way things worked, combined with some encourag- ing parents and an inspirational teacher or two, propelled Darden, now 74, into a 40-year career as an engineer with NASA, where she became an expert in sonic boom research. An African American, and a female working among male scientists in 1967, Darden was a protégée of a group of African American women who were called into service nearly two decades before her as "human computers" at NACA, the predecessor to NASA. Thanks to those female pioneers who crunched the data, Darden was able to advance further, earning a master 's and a doctorate in mechanical engineering along the way. Darden's academic calling was rooted in her love of math and geometry, fostered partly by a nurturing teacher. "My love of and appreciation for mathematics deepened considerably under my plane geometry teacher in high school," she says. "On the day at school that we 'exchanged places' with the teachers, I was the geometry teacher. I continued to be in contact with that teacher, and we visited several times over nearly 60 years until she passed last summer. My decision to major in math was made firm in her class." Darden herself became a math teacher during her first few years out of college, in Brunswick County and then in Portsmouth, Va. Although she had offers to teach at two colleges after earning her master 's degree, she instead chose to join NASA, starting as a data analyst. Darden learned an important lesson about speaking up for what's right when she found she was going to be laid off while a young man with less experience was going to replace her. " That upset me," she says. "I asked, 'Why is it that women who come here with the same background are put in the computer pool?' That's when I got into the sonic boom program and stayed there 25 years." During that time, Darden performed tests and developed models in atmo- spheric studies, researching ways to change the design of an airplane and how people react to sonic booms. Later, she advanced to management and strategic planning, and even made the first cut when she applied to become an astronaut. Just recently retired and living in Hampton, Va., Darden still sees her friend, Katherine Johnson, one of the human computers who paved the way for her at NASA. And like Johnson, Darden says, "It was never a bad day to go to work." don't usually go.' I said, 'Well, is there a law?' " She was allowed to go to the meetings. She was most proud of being part of the Apollo mis- sion to the moon. "You determined where you were on earth when you started out and where the moon would be at a given time," she reveals in her MAKERS video interview. "We told them how fast they were going and that the moon would be there by the time you got there." Describing mathematics much later in life, she said, "It's just there. It's always been a part of whatever I was doing. You're either right or you're wrong. at I liked about it." S e e K a t h e r i n e J o h n s o n's M A K E R S i n t e r v i e w a t 29 November / December 2016 Enter The Search for Hidden Figures contest! The contest, presented by PepsiCo and 21st Century Fox, is open to females with talent in STEM who haven't yet been recognized for their work or potential. Tell judges how you'll use STEM to change the world, and you could win scholarship money, prizes, and opportunities that will help you pursue work you love. Apply by Dec. 10 at

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