1st Female U.S. Astronaut on Why Science Is Cool

Sally Ride

Sally Ride

Sally Ride, America’s first woman astronaut, has emerged as one of the nation’s leading proponents of science education – particularly for middle-school girls. Dr. Ride’s journey from a high school tennis player to NASA celebrity involved a lot of math. After earning much deserved fame and relative fortune from her space endeavors, Ride directed her attention to what she sees as a national crisis: a dearth of female students pursuing science and engineering careers.

To alter this trajectory, in 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, an organization that hosts invention contests and festivals and produces supplemental educational materials aimed at making science fun, interesting and accessible for tweens.

Inventors Digest landed an interview with Ride to talk about science education and the importance it plays in the nation’s future.

ID: What motivated you to start Sally Ride Science?

SR: Over the many years since my flight, it became clear to me there are a lot of kids, including girls, who are curious about science, about the world, about life on Mars, about how to design a roller coaster. But they lose that, partly because our system doesn’t put a lot of emphasis on science and math.

It’s not cool to be a scientist or engineer. These kids want to do things that are cool – like be a pro basketball player, an actor, a singer, a playwright. Things that our culture puts in front of them in papers and on TV all the time. When they’re relatively young, they think science is cool and interesting, but they lose that in socializing. That was the motivation for Sally Ride Science.

ID: So, what does Sally Ride Science do?

SR: We try to create programs that continue to engage student as they go through middle school – to show that science is just as interesting as it was when they were in elementary school. That science offers great career opportunities and you can go through life doing something you love.

As we looked around, we didn’t think there were other companies creating compelling education content that kept tweens engaged. So we came up with after-school and supplemental materials. Our TOYchallenge contest capsulates our philosophy that science is fun. Whether you’re building a toy or a bridge, you employ the same principles. The TOYchallenge is engineering in disguise.

ID: Why are girls historically less likely to pursue science and engineering?

SR: I think a lot of it is the way our society has developed science and engineering and who does it. The world and our perceptions have changed a lot, even since the ’70s, but there are lingering stereotypes. If you ask an 11-year-old to draw a scientist, she’s likely to draw a geeky guy with a pocket protector. That’s just not an image an 11-year-old girl aspires to. As she looks on the Web, she sees men as scientists. That’s not particularly appealing to tween girls. And if an 11-year-old girl says she wants to be an engineer, she’ll likely get a different reaction from peers than she would if a boy her age said the same thing, and maybe even different reactions from teachers and parents.

ID: So you put a female face on science?

SR: That’s a good way to say it. We put a female face on math and science. We target both boys and girls, but we emphasize girls. We try to introduce them to female role models. Make the girls appreciate you can be a scientist and be a normal person.

ID: Discuss the intersection of science education and its intersection with innovation – does one beget the other?

SR: They absolutely go together. Basic science research, basic engineering are what lead to some of the innovations that propel the country. Look around, there’s a computer on every desk, everyone has a cell phone. iPods have taken over. That’s just in the consumer-electronics market. These things are part of our lives. We can’t imagine a world without them anymore. Some of our largest, most productive companies wouldn’t exist without a science engineering base – HP, Apple, Microsoft, Dell, the list is endless. This stuff is all around them. It’s in their pink Nanos. It’s in IM (instant messaging). It’s in their cell phones that can take pictures.

ID: What’s at stake should the nation lose its scientific standing?

SR: We’ve always thought of ourselves as an innovative country that keeps at the forefront, a world leader for the last many many decades. We’ve always prided ourselves on innovation. In World War II, the Cold War, the race to the moon – our self-image is being a technologically superior country. Without the new generation having some background or ability to enter engineering or science, we risk losing that. It’s part of our identity. We’re pioneers. We’re innovators. And we’re not producing engineers and scientists in the numbers we need.

ID: You sound serious about making science fun. But we were curious: What was your reaction a couple of years ago to then-NASA Administrator Michael Griffin’s comment that global warming wasn’t something we need to wrestle with?

SR: Wasn’t that unbelievable? That was incredible. But the jury is in. It was in before the most recent 2006 report on global climate change. All the top scientists are able to agree. We can see the (negative) impacts. For the NASA administrator to say this is not something we should be concerned about sends a wrong signal to people.

Kids are ahead of adults on this issue. They’re very well informed and are very interested in it. They’re the ones that will take the lead.

ID: How so?

SR: I think science and innovation will have a huge role to play in this. This could be the issue that galvanizes young scientists and engineers across the world. It’s a problem that’s not intractable yet, but there’s no silver bullet. You’re going to see a burgeoning of entrepreneurial companies with engineering solutions that will each attack separate parts of this very large problem. Conservation can help, but the solutions to this are gong to lie in advances in technology.

ID: What are some the new things we can expect to see from Sally Ride Science?

SR: We’re excited about our innovating classroom sets of supplemental materials. Our next ones on climate change and astronomy are very engaging. We’ve finished a movie based on the TOYchallenge competition. It’s a documentary done by a friend of mine. It’s done like “Spellbound,” the documentary on a spelling B. She followed six teams throughout the arc of the design and innovation process. It’s all about trying to get science more integrated into the popular culture.

Sally Kristen Ride

Born: May 26, 1951 in Encino, Calif.

Early years: Starts playing tennis at age 10. Won a tennis scholarship to Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles. Enrolled in Swarthmore College in 1968, but dropped out to pursue a career in pro tennis. She realized she wasn’t good enough; enrolled at Stanford University.
After school: At 27, armed with bachelor of arts, science and masters’ degrees, Ride is a doctorate candidate looking for work in astrophysics.

Orbital pull: Responds to ad in Stanford University newspaper from NASA looking for astronauts. More than 8,000 apply; 35 were accepted, six of whom were women, including Ride.

NASA: In 1977 undergoes extensive training that includes parachute jumping, water survival, gravity and weightlessness training, radio communications and navigation. Ride serves as communications officer for shuttle flights, relaying radio messages from mission control to the shuttle crews. Also assigned to the team that designed the shuttle’s remote mechanical arm.
Big Show: In 1983, Ride becomes the first American woman in space on the shuttle Challenger. She takes two flights, spending more than 343 hours in space.

Disaster: Was preparing for her third mission when Challenger exploded in 1986.

Aftermath: Appointed to committee to find what went wrong. Retires from NASA in 1987. Becomes science fellow at Stanford, then professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego.

2001: Founds Sally Ride Science.

What’s TOYchallenge?

The Sally Ride Science TOYchallenge is a national toy-design challenge for teams of fifth through eighth graders. Toys offer an entrée to science, engineering and design processes.

Each TOYchallenge team needs an adult coach to support the team as they work together to brainstorm, research, design, and test their creations. The coach is not there to tell kids what to do, but to support and guide a team from brainstorming to building and exhibiting a working prototype.

The competition results in a lot of “self-learning” – students learn things that they need to know on their own, skills that they don’t always learn in school. When they form their own plans and come to their own conclusions, students not only retain what they’ve learned better, but they also feel more empowered, motivated and fulfilled. They learn skills they will use for the rest of their lives.

Visit www.toychallenge.com