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Sally Ride's learning legacy lives on

Sally Ride Science Festivals promote science, math and technology as future career paths for girls. (Photo: NASA)

"When I was a girl, I had a teacher who encouraged my interest in science. She challenged me to be curious, to ask questions, and to think about things for myself. She helped build my self-confidence. All of these helped me to become a scientist and an astronaut." — Sally Ride, Ph.D. 1951-2012.

As the first U.S. woman in space, Sally Ride understood the impact she would have as a role model to girls and young women, and she took that responsibility seriously. She dedicated her life to promoting education and interest in the sciences for an entire generation of women.

In 2001, Sally Ride started "Sally Ride Science," a company to create educational programs and products to help inspire girls and young women to pursue their interests in science and math. Ride served as its president and CEO.

One of the outlets for this effort is a fairly recent one, the Sally Ride Science AcademyTM, which was established in 2009. It is a "train-the-trainer" program that helps teachers pique the curiosity of students in a variety of scientific areas. According to the Academy, "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."

Since its inception in 2009, the Sally Ride Science AcademyTM has trained over 650 instructors in 16 states and the District of Columbia. Using Academy materials, those instructors have in turn gone back to their districts and trained other educators. To date, more than 5,400 educators have been trained.

It is projected that by the end of the 2012-2013 school year, the Academy will have touched approximately 604,000 elementary and middle school students.

This effort is based on the need not only for more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) professionals, but for a more diverse group of STEM professionals, including more women.

U.S. Department of Labor Workforce projections indicate that 15 of the 20 fastest growing occupations in 2014 will require significant science or mathematics training to successfully compete for a job.

A report issued in 2011 by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for a Competitive Workforce showed that for all 50 states, ratings were very poor in the "student achievement" category. Not a single state had more than 60 percent of its students showing proficiency on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) fourth and eighth grade assessments for reading and math.

The United States is lagging in the sciences behind its foreign counterparts. A 2009 report by the National Center for Education Statistics compared 15 year-old U.S. students with other countries in the Organization for Economic Development and found that the U.S. students placed below average in both math and science. In math, the high schoolers were in the bottom quarter of the countries that participated, putting them behind China, Finland and Estonia. In science, U.S. students lagged behind Canada, Japan and the Czech Republic.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010 women accounted for roughly half the total workforce, and 52 percent of the workforce in management and professional occupations. With the need increasing for science and math skills, it is becoming imperative that girls and young women become proficient in the sciences.

Significantly, according to a May 2011 STEM perceptions study, 68 percent of female STEM college students said that a teacher or class sparked their interest in STEM—which was the number one reason for women to embark on studies in the STEM fields.

In addition to the Science Academy, Sally Ride Science also promotes Sally Ride Science Festivals, which bring together hundreds of girls in fifth through eighth grades for a day of science and socializing, as well as summer science camps for girls entering grades four through nine, which are held on college campuses.

Sally Ride Science eLearning carries a wide array of books for upper elementary and middle school students that highlight the careers of individuals in various science fields, including a biochemist, plant geneticist, chemical engineer, robotics engineer, wildlife biologist, climate scientist, computer security expert, sports statistician, animation scientist, patent examiner, acoustic physicist, and science writer. Exposure to a variety of STEM specialties can spark interest in fields students may not have been aware of on their own.

She also sparked interest in the space program by partnering with NASA to develop EarthKAM, which stands for Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle School Students. It is an educational outreach program that allows middle school students to take pictures of the Earth from a digital camera on board the International Space Station.

There is no way of knowing the full effect that her efforts to promote scientific learning will have on the future, but Sally Ride has made a definite impact in promoting science to young students, girls in particular.

Sally Ride's legacy lives on, in the lives and in the careers of the young people of the future.

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Sally Ride Science Festivals promote science, math and technology as future career paths for girls. (Photo: NASA)
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