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A High Five From Sally Ride on Advancing STEM Education

Posted: 08/29/2012 12:22 pm

It was a message from a real American hero.

"Paula, this is Sally Ride. I clipped an article you wrote about the importance of motivating kids to study math and science in middle school and called to let you know that the Broadcom Foundation is on target with support for training teachers in STEM project-based learning."

This "high-five" voicemail from Sally came just eight weeks before she left us all too soon, a victim of pancreatic cancer -- a disease for which some pioneering young innovator may find a cure -- if we inspire middle schoolers to stay with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math courses) into high school and beyond.

As the first woman (and still the youngest) astronaut to travel into space (Who can forget that mass of curly hair floating around her ethereal weightlessness?) -- Stanford trained physicist Sally Ride inspired young people from all walks of life to pursue challenging careers in science and engineering.

Using her famous name to brand "Sally Ride Science" she tackled under-representation of women in the sciences, focusing her efforts on the promotion of science in the middle grades because girls in particular drift away from the study of science and math at this age. Her school programs, classroom materials and teacher trainings brought science to life for educators and their students -- making the same point that participation in science fairs make: science and engineering can be creative, collaborative and fun.

Sally Ride's most enduring legacy may well be empowering middle school teachers to expose kids to a wide range of exciting career opportunities that await them in science and engineering. Many teachers have no direct knowledge about the incredible careers in modern science and engineering that are available if their students stay engaged. For example, educators can be unaware of the exciting STEM-related careers at technology companies where scientists and engineers design the future of technology for our everyday lives. Most K-8 teachers have had little or no hands-on science training in their own formal education. As a result, they are unprepared or uncomfortable in stepping away from the textbook to challenge their students through project-based learning. Ride's "Train the Trainer" not only educates teachers about STEM careers, it teaches them to share their knowledge with colleagues -- thus exponentially increasing STEM education around the country.

Sharing STEM knowledge and inspiration has never been more essential. According to the National Academies, among wealthy nations, the United States ranked 23rd in science and 31st in math in standardized tests. We now know from study after study that the effect of a quality teacher on a child's life is monumental. By providing needed hands-on STEM training to teachers in the early grades, educators have the opportunity to integrate STEM subjects as much as possible into children's school life and curriculum -- clearly critical if we are to move the dial on these dismal statistics.

Recently the Obama Administration announced the president's plan to create a national STEM Master Teacher Corps. Improving America's STEM education is one of the president's top priorities. As he has said repeatedly, "(a) world-class STEM workforce is essential to virtually every goal we have as a nation -- whether it's broadly shared economic prosperity, international competitiveness, a strong national defense, a clean energy future, and longer, healthier, lives for all Americans."

Many technology companies are stepping up to support teachers and school districts and recognize the value of auxiliary institutions like Sally Ride Science and their critical supplemental training of teachers in STEM areas. Applying every resource available, we can more effectively provide teachers with knowledge and confidence to engage in project-based STEM teaching. In turn, their students will be much better positioned to experience the relevance and fun of math and science and more likely to aspire to exciting STEM-related careers that will strengthen our country and drive our global economy.

While Sally Ride's place in history is solidly established with her pioneering spaceflight along with the likes of Neil Armstrong and James Lovell, her greatest contribution is as an educator and motivator. Her phone call to me was clearly that: intended to inspire and motivate. Upon reflection, I concluded her call was probably one of many she made on borrowed time to a cohort of STEM advocates, challenging us to carry on with the important work of pivoting young people toward hands-on-STEM learning and helping them believe they have the right stuff to be scientists, engineers and innovators.

As our foundation prepares to send "Sally Ride Science" Career Books to reward 300 teachers as part of our national science fair competition -- the Broadcom MASTERS -- I wonder if I had been in middle school when Sally Ride pioneered into space, my own career trajectory might have been very different.

 
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