Editor's Note: In 2001, Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, founded Sally Ride Science to engage boys and girls in STEM. This article was written before she died on July 23, 2012.
Is science cool? Probably not, if you ask a showbiz celebrity or a pop star. In fact, negative stereotypes continue to persist about scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. Furthermore, studying hard is rarely celebrated on reality TV or in pop music.
This helps explain why the U.S. is falling behind China and other emerging economies like India and South Korea. These countries have made it a priority to provide a good science education to their students, because they know it paves the way for any country to become technologically advanced.
As a result, their children are scoring significantly higher on global standardized science and math tests than their American counterparts. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment, U.S. students rank 17th in the world in science and 25th in math.
Emphasis on STEM
This disturbing scenario made America's first woman in space upset. But Sally Ride refused to sit and sulk. Instead, she decided to do something to make a difference. A great beneficiary of science education, Ride insists that America must put extra emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in order to restore its glory that made the country a world leader in innovation and research.
Sally Ride interacts with Sam Houston Middle School students during the annual "Introduce a Girl to Engineering" Day at Exxon Mobil's headquarters in Irving, TX on February 16, 2010.
Photo: Jim Mahoney/DallasNews.com
Out of that conviction comes the Sally Ride Science Academy, a nonprofit founded in 2001, dedicated to create quality programs and products that educate, entertain, engage, and inspire.
Since 2009, the Academy has directly trained more than 650 educators, who have returned to their districts and trained more than 4,800 additional educators. By the end of the 2011 – 2012 school year, more than 600,000 students will be impacted by the program.
One of the academy's salient features is the "Train-the-Trainer" program. It educates teachers and counselors on the importance of introducing young students to STEM careers. At the same time, the program showcases diverse role models in those careers and provides pathways to incorporate STEM career awareness in the classroom.
"But we must start early with students," said Ride at a gathering of academy students in California in May. "In fact, fourth through eighth grade is critical. This is the age where many students, particularly girls and minorities, begin to disengage from these subjects. They feel and internalize the influences of peer pressure, popular culture, and society's expectations."
Her observation is backed by official data. While the face of the American workforce has changed dramatically in the past decade, and though STEM interest continues to increase in American classrooms, the U.S. Department of Education notes that 60% of all new jobs in the 21st century will require skills that are possessed by only 20% of the current workforce.
"We live in a knowledge economy in which technology is ubiquitous and education is currency. No subjects have more potential to influence, impact, and shape society than math and science," she said. "We continue to make strides in equipping talented educators with key tools to prepare and encourage young students, particularly girls, to pursue science and engineering careers."
In addition to sparking interest in STEM by supplementing the traditional math and science curricula, the academy aims to address gender-bias issues to ensure girls are encouraged to follow their interest in these subjects.
Today, despite the fact that women currently hold nearly half of all jobs in the U.S., they represent less than 25% of the STEM workforce. Studies show that in fourth grade, the number of girls and boys who like math and science is about the same, but by eighth grade, twice as many boys as girls show an interest in these subjects.
"Addressing this trend begins in the classroom," said Ride. She attributes a great deal of her success to a teacher named Dr. Mommaerts. "When I was a girl, I had a teacher who realized that I had an affinity for science. She encouraged and challenged me to pursue that interest, helping to give me the confidence to achieve and do the hard work required to become a scientist and an astronaut."
She hopes that each of the teachers trained at the academy will create that spark in other children, helping them to dream big and then have the courage and conviction to follow those dreams.
Said Ride, "Thank you Dr. Mommaerts. If you hadn't taken a personal interest in me in high school, who knows what career path I might have followed."
Arshad Mahmud is an independent writer.
When I was a girl, I had a teacher who realized that I had an affinity for science. She encouraged and challenged me to pursue that interest.
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