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May 07, 2009

Sally Ride made her mark as the first American woman astronaut, but these days her life’s work is a little closer to home.

By Tara Kyle

Before Sally Ride made it to outer space, she made it through Stanford.
Just two years after Ride earned her in 1975 master’s degree in physics, records from the National Science Foundation show that only 15 percent of master’s degrees in the physical sciences awarded nationally went to women.
And while 50 female astronauts have now rocketed beyond the atmosphere, that gap in advanced science achievement isn’t much narrower—only about one third of physical science graduate students are now women.
Ride traces this imbalance to an image problem for science among girls, which is why she now lives a life on the road for Sally Ride Science, an organization that sponsors festivals and camps for middle-school-aged girls across the country. Ride targets middle schoolers because most studies indicate that girls don’t lose confidence or interest in science until after elementary school.
Ride most recently took her campaign to throngs of tweens at the Cambridge Science Festival. There, she talked about her upbringing, her battles with self-confidence and her pursuit of a NASA career, supported by a father “who did not have a scientific bone in his body.”
She recalled worrying that she wouldn’t have the chops to continue with science through high school and university. She emphasized the importance of teachers who told her that “if you’re good in math in 5th grade, you’re going to be good in math in 11th grade, you’re going to be good in math in college. You don’t get dumber as you get older.”
Redoubling her commitment to women in science, Ride recently retired from her professorship in physics at the University of California, San Diego, so she could give all her time to Sally Ride Science.
“We start to lose both girls and boys for math and science…but we lose far more girls than boys,” she says. “There are still lingering stereotypes that suggest that scientists, and especially engineers, are male. By middle school, girls have started to internalize those messages.”
So far, Sally Ride Science has hosted about 80 festivals, where attendance at the largest tops 1,200.
Her inspirational message is just half the program. Once she leaves—often directly for a flight to the next event—kids rotate through workshops. In Cambridge, kids attended MIT faculty-led sessions with science-made-fun titles like “Snacks on Fire” and “Bones, M&Ms and Space.”
While the daughters—and a few errant sons—try on space gear and play with flying robots, it’s an opportunity for the parents in attendance to reflect on the chance their kids are getting.
“We didn’t have any of these programs when I was growing up. We were primarily focused on becoming nurses—I guess that’s science—and teachers, and maybe staying home,” says Judy Bisson, who brought her 13-year-old daughter Natalie to Sally Ride Science.
Another mother, Sharon Fama, remembers a dearth of women scientists to look up to when she was in school, before Ride and her colleagues made it to space.
“I think the world is wide open now, girls can be and do whatever they want to do. I think it’s great having opportunities like this to let girls really see that, because I think there are still some people who don’t always believe that girls can really do and be anything that they want to be.”

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Very inspiring!

ML Manning
May 13, 2009