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Growing Young Scientists

Sally Ride Former NASA Astronaut , President & CEO, Sally Ride ScienceDr. Sally Ride flew aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1983, becoming the first American woman in space. Today, she is striving to promote science education for children and educators, based on her broad range of experience and research. In 1995, Dr. Ride initiated the KidSat program, an educational project that gave school kids the opportunity to remotely access a camera aboard the space shuttle, in order to learn about the Earth. This project has been succeeded by the globally popular EarthKAM program.In this interview, Dr. Ride shares her views on current topics surrounding science education in the United States.

Sally K. Ride, Ph.D.
Former NASA Astronaut, President & CEO, Sally Ride Science
Dr. Ride received a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University in 1978. The same year, she was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate from among more than 8,000 applicants - one of six women among the 35 trainees chosen. In 1983, she became the first American woman in space, flying aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Dr. Ride’s second shuttle flight was in 1984. She retired from NASA in 1987, and became a Science Fellow at Stanford University. In 1989, she was appointed Professor of Physics and Director of the California Space Institute at the University of California, San Diego. She was a member of the Presidential Commission investigating the 1986 Challenger accident, and of NASA’s Columbia Accident Investigation Board in 2003. In 2001, she started her own company, Sally Ride Science, to create science programs and publications for students, parents and teachers.
Dr. Ride passed away on July 23, 2012. We would like to express our sincere condolences.

How to teach science effectively

Q. Could you explain the activities your company, Sally Ride Science, is engaged in?

 Science Festival (courtesy of Sally Ride Science)
Science Festival (courtesy of Sally Ride Science)
Books and materials published by Sally Ride Science (courtesy of Sally Ride Science)
Books and materials published by Sally Ride Science (courtesy of Sally Ride Science)

We run several different kinds of programs. One of our largest and best known is the EarthKAM (Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle School Students) project. It’s a NASA-funded program that allows middle school students to remotely access a camera aboard the International Space Station and take photos of different parts of the world that fit in with their curriculum. So they might be studying earth sciences, or the environment, or weather, and they could choose to take photographs that support that curriculum. That’s a very popular program, and we’ve actually had several schools in Japan participate in it. It’s an international program.
Another thing the company does is provide teacher training programs. We have teacher institutes and academies for elementary and middle school teachers, to train them in effective science teaching and ways to engage and excite students about science. That’s become a major focus for us over the last two or three years, and is a growing part of what we do.
We also create classroom materials: books and activities about different areas of science and science careers, again targeted towards elementary and middle school students. These are actually quite popular. They’re not textbooks, but they supplement textbooks. They go into more depth on certain subjects, and cover the different areas that teachers and students at those grade levels become involved in.
Those are the three main areas that Sally Ride Science is involved in: classroom programs like EarthKAM; teacher training; and classroom materials, books and activities. We also hold Science Festivals for 5th to 8th grade girls. Q. Do you have any specific fields that you are especially focused on? As you might expect, we focus on space sciences. We also have several materials related to earth sciences and the environment, climate change, and environmental sciences. And we’re in the process right now of creating books that cover the entire spectrum of sciences - a set of life sciences books, a set of physical sciences books, and a set on earth and space sciences. It will be a total of 36 different books that cut across the whole range of sciences. We try to focus on the science content, why science is exciting, and what they should know about different areas of science.

Focusing on 5th to 8th grade girls

Q. You’ve consistently focused on elementary and middle school kids (5th to 8th grades). Why did you decide to focus on this age group?

Science Festival (courtesy of Sally Ride Science)
Science Festival (courtesy of Sally Ride Science)
Dr. Ride was an avid tennis player in high school and college (courtesy of Sally Ride)
Dr. Ride was an avid tennis player in high school and college (courtesy of Sally Ride)

There’s a lot of research that shows that students - and I’ll speak about students in the United States now because that’s the research that we’re going on - are very interested in science when they’re in 4th grade, 5th grade, when they’re nine, ten years old. And then they start to drift away from science as they become 11, 12, 13 years old. And once you lose them at that age, it’s very difficult to get them back.
So it turns out that if you had to focus on one particular area, one particular age group, and therefore one particular grade level in school, you’d focus on the transition between elementary school and middle school, because that’s where we lose a lot of students. So our whole focus is trying to keep those particular students engaged in science, interested in it. Because they were interested just a couple of years before, and excited about science, so if we can maintain that interest, there’s some hope that they’ll continue on with it through high school and on into college. Q. Do you have any idea why they start losing interest at that age? In the United States, it has a lot to do with our culture. We haven’t really emphasized the importance of science, and we haven’t made science seem interesting and exciting and cool as careers for kids.
When I was growing up in the 1960s, our country had a strong focus on science and technology. It was the early days of the space program, and there was an enormous focus on science and engineering. Students grew up thinking that science was really cool. Engineering was really cool.
And we as a country lost that, and for the last 20 years or so have not really been putting our focus on it. And so kids don’t appreciate how important it is. They don’t read about it in the newspaper as important. When they turn on the television or go online, they don’t really think of it as important, and they don’t have a lot of role models that are very visible.
But that’s changing in this country. Just in the last year or two, we’ve started to put much more emphasis and importance on science education. But it’s going to take a while to change the culture around that. Q. In September 2010, President Obama announced "Change the Equation," a new program to promote STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Do you think that’s a positive move? I do. I think that’s very positive. President Obama has been very, very supportive of science education, and has announced several major initiatives in science and science education. It is very helpful to have the leader of the country so vocal and so visible in his support.
He has it all under the umbrella of the "Educate to Innovate" campaign, as he’s calling it. And the program that he announced in September 2010 is one that I’m actually a part of, as the vice chairman. It’s an effort to get corporations - private companies - to come together in support of science education. A lot of them have been very supportive over the last ten or fifteen years, and put a lot of money into science programs. But now this initiative is getting them to come together as one voice and support science education, and then try to leverage the work that they do by combining efforts, by communicating better, and also by leveraging their support with other available support. The corporations involved aren’t just science education companies. It’s a wide variety of companies that range from IT companies and manufacturers to companies in transportation, medicine, wholesale, etc. Sally Ride Science is one of them, too.

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