Mimio Educator

Black History Month: 10 African-American Innovators

Posted by Travis Rink on Thu, Feb 2, 2017

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Now that Black History Month is here, you may be looking for ways to tie the celebration into your lessons. The National Education Association (NEA) offers an array of lesson plans for students of all ages that can help you integrate the subject into your classroom. And if you’re looking for EdTech tools that celebrate diversity and technology, check out these resources from Edutopia. You can also access lesson packs on MimioConnect®, our online educator community, with activities to help you celebrate African-American history all month long.

African Americans are responsible for countless inventions and discoveries that have made an impact on our world, so it’s important to incorporate the incredible minds behind these achievements into your Black History Month curriculum. From inventors and trailblazers to scientists and astronauts, here are 10 innovators to include in your lessons this month:

  • Granville Woods: Born in 1856, inventor Granville Woods registered over 50 patents in his lifetime—including a telephone transmitter, a steam boiler furnace, and a trolley wheel—earning the nickname “Black Edison.” His most significant invention, the multiplex railway telegraph, allowed railway stations to communicate with moving trains, which helped reduced rail accidents. Thomas Edison made claim to one of his devices, stating that he had first created a similar device and that he was entitled to the patent, but Woods was successful in defending himself. After Edison’s defeat, he offered Woods a position with his company, which he declined.
  • Katherine Johnson: Katherine Johnson had an impressive career at NASA that spanned decades. Her math skills and calculations were critical to the success of many missions, including the early missions of astronauts John Glenn and Alan Shepard, as well as the famed Apollo 11 flight that put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. She has earned many honors and awards for her outstanding work, and was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015 for being a pioneering example of African American women in STEM. Johnson’s story is featured in the recent film Hidden Figures, where she is portrayed by award-winning actress Taraji P. Henson.
  • Mark Dean: As one of the 12 engineers who built the IBM personal computer—holding three of the company’s original nine PC patents—computer engineer and inventor Mark Dean is considered one of technology's top innovators. Along with co-inventor and IBM colleague Dennis Moeller, Dean helped develop the interior architecture that enables computers to connect to printers, monitors, and other peripherals. Throughout his long career at IBM, he became the first African American IBM Fellow—the highest honor a scientist, engineer, or programmer at IBM can achieve. Dean also served as Vice President of Worldwide Strategy and Operations for IBM Research as well as the CTO for IBM Middle East and Africa.
  • Marc Hannah: If you were impressed with the effects and graphics in films like Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, and Aladdin, you can thank Marc Hannah. This electrical engineer and computer graphics designer co-founded Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI) in 1982, and was named as the company’s principal scientist for the creation of computer programs in 1986. Along with developing the graphics technology that would be used in many Hollywood movies, Hannah was also instrumental in designing the Nintendo 64 gaming system.
  • Shirley Ann Jackson: The first African-American woman to earn a doctorate in nuclear physics from MIT, physicist and inventor Shirley Ann Jackson is a leader in research, academia, industry, and government. In 1995, President Clinton appointed Jackson as the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and in 2014, President Obama named Jackson the co-chair of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board. She has earned several awards and honors throughout her impressive career, including the National Medal of Science—the highest honor for scientific achievement given by the US government. Jackson currently serves as the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where she has helped raise over $1 billion in donations for philanthropic causes.
  • Lonnie Johnson: Lonnie Johnson holds over 80 patents, but this rocket scientist is best known for inventing one of the world’s best-selling toys: the Super Soaker! Johnson earned degrees in both mechanical and nuclear engineering before joining the Air Force, where he worked on the stealth bomber program. He also spent time at NASA, where he worked on the nuclear power source for Galileo’s mission to Jupiter. In recent years, he has moved on from nuclear and now dedicates his efforts to creating more affordable green energy.
  • Roy Clay: Known as the "godfather of black Silicon Valley,” Roy Clay has worked hard to create opportunities for African Americans in the tech field. After learning how to code at St. Louis University, Clay was recruited by Hewlett-Packard, where he helped bring the company into the computer market. He played a major role in the development of both HP and Silicon Valley, which we know today as a hot spot for the tech industry. He went on to become a political figure, serving as Palo Alto’s Vice Mayor.
  • Mae Jemison: In September 1992, Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to travel in space, embarking on a journey aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. On board, she was in charge of all experiments as the shuttle’s science mission specialist. Before she was an astronaut, Jemison studied both chemical engineering and medicine, working in computer programming before becoming a physician. Jemison has taught at both Dartmouth and Cornell, and established the Jemison Group to encourage science education and the advancement of technology.
  • Otis Boykin: We have inventor Otis Boykin to thank for making everyday electronic devices, such as computers and TVs, more affordable. Boykin focused mainly on resistors, receiving a patent—one of 28 he received during his lifetime—for a wire precision resistor in 1959, which would later be used in radios and televisions. He went on to improve his original design and created a breakthrough device that could withstand extreme changes in temperature and pressure—and was also much more reliable and cheaper than others on the market. This second resistor came into great demand from tech companies such as IBM and helped lower the cost of computers.
  • Patricia Bath: Groundbreaking ophthalmologist and inventor Patricia Bath was the first female African-American doctor to receive a patent for a medical purpose. Her device, the Laserphaco Probe, used laser technology to remove cataract lenses, which was more accurate than the drill-like instruments that were being used at the time. This invention helped save the eyesight of millions, and even restored sight to people who had previously been blind. Along with being the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology, Bath was also the first female faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute.

This is just a dent in the long list of achievers you could incorporate into your classroom during Black History Month. Who are your favorite African American innovators and pioneers? Let us know in the comments below!

Don’t forget to check these great lessons for Black History Month.>>

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Topics: Science Lessons, STEM Lessons, curriculum

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