Sally Ride: Forging A Path to the Stars

Carry on the legacy of the heroic astronaut/educator who spent thirty years nurturing science learning for young girls.

By Judith Smith Meyer

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Sally Ride astronaut

When Sally Ride, the first American woman astronaut, passed away, much talk focused on her heroism. She succeeded in a field dominated by men. Though a Russian woman had gone to space 20 years prior, Ride’s space shuttle flight in 1984 was historic. In my opinion, Ride’s accomplishments after her NASA career ended are what make her a real hero.

Born in Los Angeles, Ride was a nationally-ranked junior tennis player. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Stanford, along with her B.S, M.S., and Ph.D. in Physics. Although she is most famous for her two space flights in the early 1980s, she never intended to be an astronaut. Sally merely answered a help-wanted ad for NASA in the Stanford student newspaper just two months prior to finishing her Ph.D. One of only six women accepted into the 1978 class of NASA astronauts, she was the first accepted for space flight.

Though her status as the first female astronaut was hallowed, she never partook in any privilege that may have been accorded to her because of her gender. Upon landing from her first space shuttle flight in 1983, Sally bypassed the bouquet of roses prepared for her in favor of the same congratulatory gesture her colleagues got. When asked how it felt to be a woman in space, she mused, “It’s no big deal. It’s too bad that society isn’t further along and this is still such a big deal. It’s time people realized that women can do any job they want to.”

From NASA and Beyond

After two space shuttle flights and work on the commission that studied the explosion of the Challenger mission in 1986, she parted ways with NASA in 1987 to begin a fellowship at the Stanford Center for International Security. Ride kept her reasons for moving on private, but some speculated that her departure was in response to the fact that by that time, defense spending on space programs outweighed civilian spending by 2:1.

Sally spent the rest of her career working to inspire youth, especially girls, to engage and pursue science in school and for careers. When asked what inspired her to pursue studies and a career in science, she explained she had a couple of very good high school science teachers who spent a lot of time helping her build confidence in herself and telling her she was smart enough to pursue whatever she wanted to.

Sally Ride Science Foundation

In 2001, she launched Sally Ride Science; a foundation designed to “educate, entertain, engage, and inspire” children’s interest in science. This idea stemmed from her own experience with the positive influence a teacher can have on a girl’s future. The foundation states, “A key part of our corporate mission is to make a difference in girls’ lives and in society’s perceptions of their roles in technical fields. We believe that when children are encouraged to pursue their interests, they are inspired to think about their futures and are better prepared to pursue a wide range of exciting opportunities.”

The foundation produces science festivals and after-school camps for girls. They also run the Sally Ride Science Academy to train teachers in methods that foster and support girls, and all children, in science education. The foundation published the twelve-book series, Key Concepts in Life Science, and the compelling book series, Cool Careers in Science, for upper-elementary and middle school readers. The Sally Ride Science website notes that “research shows that introducing young students to diverse examples of science careers and scientists can ignite their interest and make the study of science more meaningful to them.”

A Long Way to Go

As educators, we all know the powerful influence a teacher can have on a child’s life. Indeed, it is the reason many of us chose our careers; to be a positive role model and inspire young learners the way we were inspired by our teachers. Though her efforts have been Herculean and influential, Ride’s work to promote gender equity in the sciences is far from complete. Research has long shown that there is no difference in the capacity of girls and boys to perform in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects. However, the U.S. Department of Education reports that currently only 20% of engineering graduates and 11% of working engineers are female.

What Can We Do?

Several sources concur about the value of educator support and encouragement in fostering desire and persistence amongst girls learning and working in the sciences. If it was good enough for Sally Ride, I’d bet teachers devoting time and attention to encouraging girls would help most children! In fact, Science Daily reported in 2008 that “self-confidence instilled by parents and teachers is more important for young girls learning math and science than their initial interest.” And the Daily Beast noted in a January 16, 2012 article that it’s important not to “emphasize that girls can be scientists,” thus reinforcing the cultural notion that gender matters at all in the discussion. Rather, the article says, “talk about what scientists do and focus on what all children think they would be good at and interested in doing.” Ride also put this approach into practice with her Cool Careers books.

Curb Your Anxiety

Elementary education majors have the highest level of math anxiety of any major. The Daily Beast article cites research that correlates teachers’ anxiety about their own math competence with their female students agreeing that boys are good at math and girls are good at reading. The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education and Science (IES) recommended in March 2011, based on strong connections to research, that we teach children “that academic abilities are expandable and improvable, not fixed from birth.” What could be more powerful for both educator and pupil than a teacher who practices what they preach? If you believe you are not good at math, take a class or work puzzles that strengthen math skills. You’ll feel better about your skills, and your students may be protected from adopting perceptions that limit future opportunities!

Give Appropriate Feedback

Once you establish curriculum and classroom culture that engage and support all students’ exploration of relevant, enjoyable, and challenging math and science, IES invites teachers to provide prescriptive, informational feedback that focuses on strategies, effort, and the process of learning. Focus students’ attention on their beliefs about why they did or did not perform well on a task. 

Look in your community for science programs directed toward girls that will engage their curiosity and provide opportunities for them to discover the array of rewarding, fun things to do in STEM subjects in addition to what they can do in school. And look over these Lesson Planet resources for ideas about how to hook students of any age or gender on science and math learning.

Lessons:

Explore Gender Stereotypes in Math and Science

Though single-sex classrooms for math and science have been disavowed since the New York Times article at the center of these activities was written (The Daily Beast article cited above points out that single-sex science education for girls often resulted in less challenging, innovative, and hands-on science curriculum.), it contains well-crafted pedagogy that makes explicit for secondary learners the stereotypes that are keeping girls from advancing in STEM fields. 

Flashlight Experiments

Inspired by a GEMS (Girls Engaged in Math and Science) program, this hands-on learning opportunity gets 3rd through 5th graders experimenting with flashlights to determine which objects and materials absorb and which reflect light. A dark room, a bunch of kids with flashlights: what could be more engaging than that?

Married Math

Pairs of learners conduct financial transactions in this two-week unit that fits well with Common Core performance assessments that will test their ability to apply learning to complex, realistic situations. They calculate salaries, taxes, and a budget, plan a vacation, buy insurance, make a will, and design a room.