Remarkable Accomplishments in Space Science | EL Education Curriculum

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ELA 2019 G6:M4

Remarkable Accomplishments in Space Science

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In Module 4, students learn about remarkable accomplishments in space science, paying special attention to accomplishments and people that may have been overlooked until recently. After reading supplemental texts to learn about key events and well-known figures of the Space Race, students begin their anchor text, Hidden Figures (Young Readers’ Edition) by Margot Lee Shetterly. This tells the story of the “West Computers,” the first black women hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, later NASA), which had previously enforced discriminatory hiring policies. The work of these tremendously talented mathematicians, like Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson, led to major advances in space science and helped land human beings on the moon. Major tasks in the module provide opportunities for students to uncover and uplift the stories of these and other hidden figures who have typically not been centered in popular accounts of space science.

Across the eight lessons of Unit 1, students read engaging informational texts about important events in the Space Race of the mid-twentieth century, leading up to the Apollo 11 moon landing. In the first half of Unit 1, much of the work around these texts is related to point of view (e.g., John F. Kennedy’s point of view toward space travel). In the mid-unit assessment, students apply this work to a new text, analyzing the author’s point of view toward the Apollo 11 astronauts and mission and toward the future of humans in space. The informational texts of the second half of Unit 2 add deeper complexity to students’ understanding of the Space Race. Students read arguments that challenge the United States’ decision to invest in space exploration, especially when civil rights abuses were taking place at home. In preparation for the end of unit assessment, which features similar tasks, students practice tracing the arguments posed in these texts, identifying the authors’ main claims and identifying the evidence and reasoning that the authors use to support their claims. This unit helps students build critical context needed to frame and understand the content and focus of Units 2 and 3.

In Unit 2, when students begin reading Hidden Figures, they quickly discover that popular accounts of the Space Race have generally overlooked the contributions of the West Computers. In the first half of Unit 2, students analyze the way that Shetterly introduces and illustrates Dorothy, Mary, and Katherine in the text. Students also practice identifying claims about the West Computers that can be supported using evidence from the text. Students apply this learning and complete similar tasks during the mid-unit assessment. In the second half of Unit 2, and on the end of unit assessment, students read supplemental texts about the West Computers and compare and contrast the authors’ presentations of events with Shetterly’s presentation of the same events in Hidden Figures.

In Unit 3, students revisit the Painted Essay® structure to analyze a model argument essay that addresses the prompt: What makes Dorothy Vaughan’s accomplishments remarkable? Using a similar prompt about Mary Jackson or Katherine Johnson, students write collaborative argument essays that prepare them to produce independent arguments later in the unit. Informed by research conducted across Units 2 and 3, students’ independent essays present arguments about the remarkable accomplishments of their focus figure: a major contributor to space science, outside of the anchor text, whose important work is also comparatively unknown. The performance task of Module 4 invites students to create illustrated pages for a narrative nonfiction picture book about the accomplishments of focus figures. These picture books provide engaging visual support to students’ presentations of their focus figure arguments during the end of unit assessment. During this assessment, students also delineate the arguments of their classmates and reflect on their learning across the module as a whole.

Notes from the Designer

The anchor text, Hidden Figures, tells the story of talented mathematicians who persevered in the face of severe discrimination. Understanding the racist world in which the West Computers lived is critical for understanding their professional and societal legacy and impact. Still, reading descriptions of the discrimination against the West Computers may be painful for students. Across lessons, teaching notes call out specific passages that may be especially upsetting for students and offer suggestions for helping students process the content of these passages safely and compassionately. Instructional decisions throughout the module, too, equip students with the literacy skills necessary to interpret and process the content of the text and contribute meaningfully to class discussions.

Note that in activities and discussions throughout the module, the “hidden figures” are referred to by their first names: Dorothy, Mary, and Katherine. The choice to call these women by their first names was made for two reasons. First, it is consistent with practices of earlier modules, in which the main characters of texts (Percy, William, and Cal) were called by their first names throughout instruction, due to students’ familiarity with them. Second, it reflects Shetterly’s own decision to refer to the women by their first names throughout the text. Still, with this in mind, it is important to recognize that using first names may have a different impact in the context of this module, which aims to center the work of supremely accomplished and talented women in space science. Because the “hidden figures” experienced rampant discrimination and felt forced to “prove” their worth, referring to them by their first names could be interpreted as condescending, especially when compared to the naming of other (male) figures in Unit 1, like [Neil] Armstrong. If productive, discuss with students the issue of naming, examining how the way in which we name someone or something can validate, or undermine, the subject’s perceived worth.

Guiding Questions and Big Ideas

What were the main events of the Space Race, and in what scientific, political, and social context did it take place?

  • The Space Race was an international competition of space exploration that began with the Soviet Union launching the Sputnik satellite and culminated with the United States sending the first human being to the moon in 1969.
  • Scientifically, sending a human being to the moon seemed an impossible undertaking that required deep understanding of many scientific phenomena (e.g., wind tunnels, supersonic flight, trajectories, advanced aircraft).
  • Politically, the United States and the Soviet Union were at odds, and the Space Race became a symbol of innovation and power.
  • Socially, the Space Race took place at a time of rampant discrimination against black Americans in the United States. At that time, women of all races were also generally excluded from well-paying jobs in math and science.

What were the accomplishments of the "hidden figures" at NACA, and why were they remarkable?

  • The West End Computers at NACA, or the hidden figures, impacted scientific progress by using their exceptional talents in math and science to advance key projects in space science.
  • The hidden figures impacted social progress by being the first black women to assume positions at NACA, which, like many institutions of the time, had long enforced discriminatory hiring policies.
  • The hidden figures used their personal strengths and professional talents to help themselves, their families, their communities, NACA, and the United States, thus contributing to a better world.

Why is it important to study the accomplishments of the "hidden figures" and of others whose stories have gone unrecognized?

  • Hidden figures are often "hidden" due to discrimination in the way history is written.
  • Our study of history is most accurate when we celebrate the contributions of all involved.
  • The accomplishments of hidden figures are remarkable, especially because they are achieved in the face of adversity.

Content Connections

This module is designed to address English Language Arts standards and to be taught during the literacy block. The module also intentionally incorporates science content that may align to additional teaching during other parts of the day. These intentional connections are described below.

Next Generation Science Standards

Earth and Space Science: Earth’s Place in the Universe

  • ESS1.A: The Universe and Its Stars
    • Patterns of the apparent motion of the sun, the moon, and stars in the sky can be observed, described, predicted, and explained with models.
  • ESS1.B: Earth and the Solar System
    • The solar system consists of the sun and a collection of objects, including planets, their moons, and asteroids that are held in orbit around the sun by its gravitational pull on them.
  • ESS1-3: Interdependence of Science, Engineering, and Technology
    • Engineering advances have led to important discoveries in virtually every field of science and scientific discoveries have led to the development of entire industries and engineered systems.

Earth and Human Activity

  • ESS3-4: Science Addresses Questions About the Natural and Material World
    • Scientific knowledge can describe the consequences of actions but does not necessarily prescribe the decisions that society takes.

Physical Science: Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions

  • PS2.B: Types of Interactions
    • Gravitational forces are always attractive. There is a gravitational force between any two masses, but it is a very small excerpt when one or both of the objects have large mass—e.g., Earth and the sun.
    • Forces that act at a distance (electric, magnetic, and gravitational) can be explained by fields that extend through space and can be mapped by their effect on a test object (a charged object, a magnet, or a ball, respectively).
  • PS2-1: Influence of Science, Engineering, and Technology on Society and the Natural World
    • The uses of technologies and any limitations on their use are driven by individual or societal needs, desires, and values; by the findings of scientific research; and by differences in such factors as climate, natural resources, and economic conditions.

The module also intentionally incorporates education technology content that may align to additional teaching during other parts of the day. These intentional connections are described below.

Technology and Multimedia

  • Speech-to-text/text-to-speech tool: Used to increase writing fluency by allowing students to fill in note-catchers and compose essays using this function.
    • Many newer devices already have this capability; there are also free apps for this purpose.
  • Ebook creation and publishing tool: Used to create the children's picture book for the performance task. Use an ebook format to create and publish the narrative nonfiction picture book, an anthology of stories about the researched focus figures.
  • Hidden Figures film (2016): Provide visual support for reading the anchor text and additional practice with standards that require study of multimedia components. Consider displaying carefully chosen clips from the 2016 film version of Hidden Figures at strategic times throughout the study of the anchor text.
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration: Build background on the Apollo missions and other contributions to space science led by the United States' research agency. Students can explore images and videos to better visualize the many events featured in the anchor text and supplemental texts.

Refer to each Unit Overview for more details, including information about what to prepare in advance.

Optional: Community, Experts, Fieldwork, Service, and Extensions


  • Widen the audience for the class picture book. Share a copy with the school library and/or a local community library. Arrange for students to read the picture books aloud to younger schoolmates.
  • Take inventory of the books available in the school library focused on key events in space science. Examine them for their inclusion of the scientific and mathematical contributions of women and people of color. Suggest titles the librarian or media center specialist may want to add.
  • Support links between ELLs' home languages and countries and major tasks of the module. Ways to do this may include: (1) adding important figures in space science from students' home countries to the list of focus figures students can choose to study, (2) encouraging ELLs to produce narrative nonfiction picture book pages that include both English and their home languages, and/or (3) inviting bilingual figures from the community to share their module-related expertise (e.g., about space science, about children's-book writing).


  • Invite a local expert in space science (e.g., from a local university, research center, or planetarium) to further educate students and spark interest in the module topic.
  • During Unit 1, explore the many resources about the Apollo 11 mission available at
  • The year 2019 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. A number of additional resources were published to celebrate the occasion. Explore some of these updated resources, such as the podcast 13 Minutes to the Moon or the CNN documentary Apollo 11.


  • Research local exhibits centered on space science and arrange opportunities for students to visit and reflect upon exhibit material. Challenge students to conduct additional research to locate other key individuals who might not be represented in the exhibit.


  • Challenge students to work with local librarians to develop displays of books about lesser known figures in space science.
  • Identify "hidden figures" in the school community (e.g., custodians, office staff, support staff) and develop ways to recognize their contributions to the school.
  • Partner with classrooms in earlier grades and arrange "reading buddies," sixth-grade student(s) paired with younger student(s). Schedule visits between classrooms to allow reading buddies to read aloud children's picture books together and discuss what they learned from their texts. See the Narrative Nonfiction Examples list on the Characteristics of Narrative Nonfiction anchor chart (example for teacher reference) for texts appropriate for the module topic.


  • Curate a classroom library featuring stories of diverse and underrecognized contributors to space science. Encourage students to engage with these stories across the module and keep track of people they might like to research as a focus figure during Units 2 and 3. See the Grades 6-8 Recommended Texts list for suggestions of books, articles, and videos on the module topic.
  • February is African American History Month. Create a bulletin board or other public display within the school showcasing the learning from the module and featuring the work of the West Computers.
  • Watch the Hidden Figures film and invite comparisons between the film and text, reinforcing work with RL.6.7 and SL.6.2.
  • Use research to uncover the stories of hidden figures in other fields beyond space science.


Each unit file includes supporting materials for teachers and students, including guidance for supporting English language learners throughout this unit.


Each unit in the 6-8 Language Arts Curriculum has two standards-based assessments built in, one mid-unit assessment and one end of unit assessment. The module concludes with a performance task at the end of Unit 3 to synthesize students' understanding of what they accomplished through supported, standards-based writing.

Performance Task

Hidden Figures in Space Science Picture Book

Throughout the module, students will have studied the contributions and celebrated the accomplishments of key "hidden figures" in space science, beginning with the titular hidden figures the West Computers at NACA, who serve as the focus of the module's anchor text--and culminating with other under-recognized hidden figures in space science. In this performance task, students (working in triads) will create and contribute three pages of a class picture book devoted to the stories of hidden figures. Each triad, or crew, will be responsible for three pages of content centered on the focus figure of their research. These individual stories will be compiled into an anthology-style picture book geared toward an elementary-age audience.

Texts and Resources to Buy

Texts and resources that need to be procured. Please download the Required Trade Books and Resources Procurement List for procurement guidance.

Text or Resource Quantity ISBNs
Hidden Figures (Picture Book)
by Margot Lee Shetterly
six per classroom
ISBN: 9780062742469
Hidden Figures (Young Readers’ Edition)
by Margot Lee Shetterly
one per student
ISBN: 9780062662378


Each module is approximately 6-8 weeks of instruction, broken into 3 units. The Module-at-a-Glance charts, available on the grade level landing pages, provide a big picture view of the module, breaking down the module into a week-by-week outline. It shows how the module unfolds, the focus of each week of instruction, and where the six assessments and the performance task occur.

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