ACTIVITIES & LESSONS
Photo: NASA astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison onboard the space shuttle Endeavour.
Commemorative months allow people of any age to discover something new every year. Let’s take Black History Month, celebrated in February. We might learn about the contributions various Black people have made in primary and secondary school, but how many activities get you to learn about historical figures and think like scientists?
Black people in the United States have contributed to various fields of science since the Colonial Period. One of the most famous Black scientists, Benjamin Banneker, was said to have built America’s first clock entirely out of wood circa 1753.
Black History Month Science Projects
Below, you’ll discover brief bios about well-known and lesser-known Black scientists, inventors, and mathematicians and their impacts. We’ve also provided Black History Month science activities you can use beyond February.
Activity 1: Understand Eclipses Like Benjamin Banneker
Topics Covered: Earth and space sciences, the solar system
Building a clock from wood. Helping to survey the original border of Washington, D.C. Mathematician and scientist Benjamin Banneker (1731–1806) was known for several accomplishments.
Banneker was also a self-taught astronomer and published a popular almanac in 1793 that featured astronomical data, such as moon phases. Banneker’s interest in the stars and sky led him to successfully predict the solar eclipse of 1791.
The View from Planet Earth: Eclipses, Grades 6–8
Have students develop a deeper understanding of solar and lunar eclipses by modeling the Earth-Sun-Moon system. The setup is simple—you’ll need a three-inch polystyrene foam ball, light bulb, and pen or pencil.
Activity 2: Study Space Like Dr. Mae Carol Jemison
Topics Covered: Astronomy, the solar system and universe
NASA astronaut, medical doctor, and engineer Dr. Mae Jemison (1956–) became the first Black American woman in space in 1992—which is no small feat! Dr. Jemison’s journey to space is enough to inspire any budding astronaut. Ever since she was a child, Dr. Jemison knew she belonged among the stars. The Apollo airings and Black American actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, inspired her to study science and eventually venture into space.
After working with the Peace Corps and opening a private practice as a doctor, Dr. Jemison applied to NASA’s space program. She was accepted in 1987 and made it to space among six other astronauts on the space shuttle Endeavor.
Model the Solar System, Grades 6–8
Looking up to the sky can have students as curious as Dr. Jemison about our solar system and universe. Have your students learn more about objects in space—from Earth.
Activity 3: Learn about Ants Like Charles Henry Turner
Topics Covered: Biology, entomology
For some kids, observing ants while playing outside might be common, but zoologist and entomologist Charles Henry Turner (1867–1923) took that curiosity to the next level by making the study of insects’ behavior his life’s passion.
Because of Turner’s work, we know that insects can hear and alter behavior based on experience and can learn and recognize patterns. During his 33-year career, Turner published over 70 research papers.
Learn All about an Ant’s Life, Grades K–5
Introduce young students to ants and their lives through independent and group activities.
1. Start a Discussion about Ants
Ask the following questions about ants:
- What do you think they eat?
- Where do you think ants live?
- How do ants use their antennas?
- How long do you think ants live?
- Why do you think ants dig tunnels?
2. Label an Ant’s Body Parts
Share the image below, or find one yourself, of an ant, and have students label the following parts: head, thorax, legs, antennae, abdomen, and eyes.
Activity 4: Observe Chemicals Like Alice Ball
Topics Covered: Chemical reactions, chemical equations
Chemist Alice Ball (1892–1916), unfortunately, had a short life. But amazingly, she accomplished so much by the young age of 23, including becoming the first woman and first Black American to graduate with a master’s degree from the University of Hawai‘i and the first Black American and woman chemistry professor at the University of Hawai‘i’s chemistry department.
But Ball’s most well-known accomplishment was developing the “Ball Method,” considered the most effective treatment for Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy, until the 1940s. This technique involved allowing the oil from chaulmoogra tree seeds to become injectable and absorbable by the body. At the University of Hawai‘i, you can find a plaque dedicated to Ball on the school’s lone chaulmoogra tree.
When Chemicals React, Grades 6–8
Ball was passionate about chemistry, which led to her discovering an effective treatment for leprosy. Help your students learn more about chemical reactions through this hands-on lab, where students carry out and observe a chemical reaction and examine an equation that models what happens in the reaction.
Activity 5: Brainstorm and Invent Like Granville T. Woods
Topics Covered: Inventing
Throughout his career, inventor and engineer Granville T. Woods (1856–1910) held 27 patents for his inventions, many involving making electrical railways safer. The New York Transit Museum describes three of the most significant ways Woods helped to revolutionize transportation:
- Synchronous multiplex railway telegraph: This patent allowed for communication between moving trains and train depots.
- Amusement apparatus and electric railway conduit: Woods’ patents proposed many improvements to third rail systems.
- Automatic brakes: Brakes that could be pulled from inside any train car and from tracks improved train control.
How Can You Improve Your World, Grades 1–5
Woods’ inventions made a significant impact. Inspire students to think like inventors and brainstorm ways to improve their school or community. Have them identify a problem. Then, help your students brainstorm a solution to that problem. They can write and sketch their ideas and research to see if there’s a solution. Based on what they discover, how can their inventions stand out? Check out our blog that provides steps students can take to turn their ideas into reality.
Activity 6: Work with NASA Like Katherine Johnson
Topics Covered: Astronomy, engineering
“If she says [the numbers are] good, I’m ready to go,” John Glenn declared. The “she” in this quote refers to NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson (1918–2020). Johnson, along with other Black women mathematicians like Mary Jackson, Annie Easley, and Dorothy Vaughan, has become more well-known in recent years. The film Hidden Figures brought to light the accomplishments of Johnson and other Black women working at NASA during the Space Race. During this time, career options in mathematics and science were limited for Black people and women of any race.
She always loved math as a child, and at only 18, she graduated from West Virginia State University with a BS in mathematics. In 1952, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which would later become NASA, was hiring Black women trained in mathematics, and Johnson was eventually brought on board. During her long career, Johnson’s calculations helped the first American astronaut to fly in space, the first American to orbit Earth, and later, helped an astronaut land on the Moon.
Learn about Space, Grades K–8
Johnson worked at NASA for 33 years. What better way to introduce students to STEM than through K–8 activities created by NASA, where students can learn how to build types of rockets, explore the science of space, and improve their math and engineering skills?
Additionally, explore our activities related to the sky and space exploration for Grades 1–2, Grades 3–5, and Grades 6–8.
Finally, try conducting a space and sky-themed scavenger hunt! Ask your students to:
- Find any constellation.
- What’s the current moon phase?
- Spot a flying object (a plane, helicopter, bird, or anything else that uses the sky to navigate).
- Name at least three types of clouds you were able to see.
- If possible, spot a planet you can see with your eyes (search online to determine which planets might be visible).
Activity 7: Nurture Plants Like George Washington Carver
Topics Covered: Plants, agriculture
The “Plant Doctor.” The “Peanut Man.” Agricultural scientist, inventor, and educator George Washington Carver (1864–1943) always loved plants. He loved plants so much that he developed hundreds of products derived from peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans! Carver was born on a small farm right before the American Civil War ended (you can still visit his childhood home, now a national monument, today). Even at a young age, he was interested in plants and what it took to improve their health. Carver’s keen interest in plants led him to enroll in the botany program at the Iowa State Agricultural College, where he eventually earned a BS and MS.
Carver was one of the most prominent scientists of the early 20th century who was passionate about improving the lives of poor southern farmers. To aid these farmers, Carver published research bulletins that provided practical advice. Have students become “plant doctors” by learning how to better care for plants. The activities below teach young students the basic conditions needed to grow plants successfully.
Grow Carrot Tops, Grade 1
Activity 8: Explore GPS Like Dr. Gladys West
Topics Covered: Geography, technology
Mathematician and computer programmer Dr. Gladys West (1930–) had a role in developing the Global Positioning System (GPS) that only came to light in recent years. Her work on developing satellite geodesy models was incorporated into GPS.
Dr. West was born into a family of sharecroppers. Although her family couldn’t financially support her education, she was still able to attend Virginia State College (now Virginia State University) on a four-year scholarship. After obtaining her BS and MS in mathematics from Virginia State, she worked for 42 years at the Naval Proving Ground, now called Naval Support Facility Dahlgren. Now retired, she has obtained a PhD in public administration from Virginia Tech and was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018.
Latitude and Longitude and Navigation, Grades 4–5
Dr. West’s research helped develop GPS. Start a discussion about latitude and longitude and how we use maps and GPS to find our way around the world.
Discuss how latitude lines go east-west and longitude lines go north-south and how latitude and longitude make up our geographic coordinate system. Also, mention how latitude and longitude coordinates can help us find specific locations.
Have students pick a place in the U.S. they’ve always wanted to go and use a large U.S. map to determine its coordinates (they can take turns if necessary). How long do they think it would take to arrive there from their current city, depending on different modes of transportation? Using the navigation of the GPS system, have students compare travel options, possibly including different modes of transportation such as a car, bus, train, or plane. Students should determine the amount of time it would take to arrive at their destination, compare other factors such as cost or scenery, and then decide on the best route to take.
Activity 9: Read about Other Black People in Science
There are plenty of other Black scientists, engineers, inventors, and mathematicians to learn more about during Black History Month. Consider having students read about these remarkable individuals.
- Great Black Heroes: Five Brilliant Scientists by Lynda Jones and Ron Garnett (Grades Pre-K–3)
- Percy Lavon Julian: Pioneering Chemist by Darlene Ruth Stille (Grades 5–8)
- The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just by Mélina Mangal, illustrated by Luisa Uribe (Grades 1–4)
- Computer Decoder: Dorothy Vaughan, Computer Scientist by Andi Diehn, illustrated by Katie Mazeika (Grades K–3)
- Black Women in Science: A Black History Book for Kids by Kimberly Brown Pellum, illustrated by Rosetta A. Conner and Keisha Morris (Grades 4–6)
- Charles Drew: Doctor Who Got the World Pumped Up to Donate Blood by Mike Venezia (Grades 1–4)
Share Your Black History Science Lessons
Do you use Black History Month as a time to teach students about remarkable figures while learning more about science? Share any Black History Month science project ideas with us on Twitter (@HMHCo) or Facebook or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more teaching resources like these Black History science lessons, download our posters that honor Black scientists who have made a significant impact.
Like our Black History science experiments and activities? Discover more in HMH’s science programs, designed to encourage student-directed learning and open students’ minds to a world of scientific thinking.
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