From the Cosmos to the Classroom: Q and A with Sally Ride

Dr. Sally Ride grabbed the nation's attention as the first American woman in space. Since then, she has moved on to education and currently teaches physics at UC San Diego. She is also the keynote speaker at this month's FETC Conference in Orlando. We were fortunate enough to have the chance to speak to her about her experiences with NASA and her thoughts on technology and education.

T.H.E.: What motivated you to participate in NASA's space program? What obstacles did you encounter?

Dr. Ride: You know, I'm not really sure what motivated me to participate. I had always been interested in math and science, even as early as middle school. I had planned on a career in science from high school on. I majored in physics almost from the first day I walked into college and continued on as a physics major in college and then in graduate school, getting my doctorate in physics. All that time I had a real interest in astronomy, astrophysics and the space program.

I followed the space program as a lot of people did. Just as I was finishing up my graduate work at Stanford, NASA put out a fairly major announcement that they were accepting applications for astronauts. They did a lot of advertising because they hadn't done that for almost ten years. That kind of got the word out and soon as I saw the ad I knew I wanted to apply. I knew I wanted to do that.


T.H.E.: So it was kind of a natural progression for you?

Dr. Ride: Kind of a natural progression. It was kind of something that, back then, you didn't really think about as a career path because they literally hadn't selected any astronauts for ten years. Scientists were even less likely to be selected.


T.H.E.: It was kind of a dry spell for the space program, wasn't it?

Dr. Ride: It was. I think as far as obstacles, I'm pleased to be able to say in all honesty that I really didn't encounter any. That's not to say that there weren't several obstacles to women pursuing careers in science and engineering in general. But I think that I was just fairly lucky in the people that I had encouraging me, the places I went to school, and the people that I worked with in high school and through college that I didn't encounter any obstacles. By the time that NASA got around to selecting our group of astronauts, they had made it very clear a couple years before that this group was going to include women. When we got there, there were six women in our incoming astronaut class and NASA was pretty accustomed to the idea. We didn't really run into any problems.


T.H.E.: Was NASA actively recruiting women astronauts, or was it just sort of an open board and the most qualified candidates got in, regardless of gender?

Dr. Ride: They were definitely recruiting women and minorities in the sense that they wanted to make sure they got a really large applicant pool from those constituencies. They were afraid that if they didn't advertise and try to get the word out, the people that would hear about it would be the military test pilots and the normal constituency. So they went through a lot of trouble to advertise in university newspapers and in corporate newsletters.


T.H.E.: On a related note, how did your educational experience influence your career path?

Dr. Ride: In a sense it was a natural extension of what I had been doing. Maybe kind of an unusual extension, but given my background and my education, it was a natural course to at least apply for.


T.H.E.: Did you always have it in the back of your head that you would end up teaching?

Dr. Ride: I did. I had always had it in the back of my head that I wanted to do research and to teach at a university. So it was natural for me to come back to the University after the space program.


T.H.E.: How do we develop a scientific literacy for students? And how do we encourage both boys and girls to become interested in scientific exploration?

Dr. Ride: Scientific literacy is becoming more and more important in our society. Any time you pick a newspaper, you're reading about global warming, ozone holes, environmental cleanup, computing technology, telecommunications technology and so forth. You really have to have at least some familiarity with the science and engineering involved even to make sense of the articles you're reading in the newspaper. I think that just for an informed citizenry that can make well-reasoned decisions, it is really important to engender scientific literacy in the population.

It's pretty clear that the way to start on that is to start very early, in elementary school and middle school. Kids are naturally curious when they're in second and third and fourth grade. You walk into a classroom and ask if anybody has a question and everybody's hand g'es up. It d'esn't matter what the subject is. They're fascinated by space, by dinosaurs, by the planets, and by lots and lots of things. Just by taking advantage of that natural curiosity, you can start them on a path toward scientific literacy and appreciating that these are interesting topics. Then, as they get older, they'll appreciate that they're important topics.

First of all, I think scientific literacy is extremely important and I think the key to it is starting them in elementary school. And that also addresses the question of addressing both boys and girls. If you start back in elementary school, you'll find that girls are just as apt to be fascinated by science as boys are. They're equally curious. As the get older, various societal pressures set in and more girls lose their interest than boys do. Both boys and girls tend to lose interest in science, but more of the girls lose interest than the boys do. If you can grab them early, you can help fend that off.


T.H.E.: In the university setting do you find a gender balance in science, or d'es it tend to be more men?

Dr. Ride: It depends on the specific field. In biology and chemistry, the courses are 50% women. But in physics, the numbers are probably down to 20% at the undergraduate level. In various fields of engineering, that percentage can be even lower. Some fields of engineering are doing relatively well in that regard, but other fields will have around 10% women or even lower in the undergraduate question.


T.H.E.: You talked about "grabbing the students early." How do we prepare our students for the information age?

Dr. Ride: We do need to grab them early and in a sense, that is happening. You take the average ten year old and the average adult and the average ten year old is apt to know more about computers than the adult. So in a sense it is happening, but the key is to introduce them to computers and the tools of the information age and make these tools a part of their everyday lives.

Probably one of the most important things in preparing kids for the future is instilling in them a sort of flexibility so that they appreciate the importance of learning new things and new skills throughout their lives. In other words, to get good at learning things. That's one of the things that has become very clear over the last ten years. The world changes very fast and it's going to start changing even faster, so you have to be able to change with it.


T.H.E.: How do you think technology can change the delivery of education?

Dr. Ride: You know, I think we're still struggling with that. It's clear that technology is changing the way we live, the way we work, the way we communicate and the way that we can get information and stay in touch. It's potentially going to change the way we educate kids, but I'm not quite sure that we've hit on the most effective way yet.

We're still at the stage of trying to get computers in all the classrooms and to get schools, not just wired, but effectively wired so that they're not getting information over the equivalent of a 1200 baud modem, which is the way that it works in a lot of schools. Just try downloading a nice Web page over something like that.

I think a lot of people have recognized that technology has the potential to revolutionize the way we deliver education, both over long distances and to kids in a classroom, but we're still struggling with the best models of how to do that. There are some really good programs, but they tend not to be too widespread. There are lots of pockets of good teachers who have good ways of doing this, but it's certainly not the norm yet. It's going to take a while until we settle in to the right way to do that.


T.H.E.: Certainly many schools are still struggling with getting the computers. Integrating them, then, is another thing entirely.

Dr. Ride: That's right. Also the teachers who have been teaching in the schools for 30 or 35 years didn't grow up with computers. They're at best only a little familiar with them, often only word processing and maybe e-mail. They're just not as familiar with it as some of the younger teachers are, so it's just going to take a while.


T.H.E.: How do you integrate technology into your teaching? Has your experience at NASA helped you with this?

Dr. Ride: My experience with NASA has definitely helped me by putting me into the world of technology. I'm pretty familiar with it, I use it regularly and I have a couple of large projects at UCSD that are associated with NASA that pretty much depend on technology, including distance technology.

As far as integrating it into my teaching, I haven't really done that very effectively yet. A lot of universities are just starting to put course syllabi on the web, some instructors have good interactive web pages. I haven't done that yet, primarily just because this past year I was developing a new course and I didn't have time to do anything other than scramble to stay one lecture ahead of the students. However, it's clearly becoming a resource.

I ended up using a couple of web references for my class and using online versions of articles. I was teaching a class on Solar System exploration so there were a lot of good visuals associated with that. I referred students to Web sites to get students to some of the latest images. I had students give a presentation where they would create a mission to the planet or moon of their choice. Then they would describe the mission, describe why it was important, and some of the details associated with it. What I found was that students were getting on to the Web, not surprisingly, and were getting information that was days old. Very recent scientific results associated with the place they were investigating. It was really kind of cool.

T.H.E.: That is kind of cool. I remember when I was in college, I had to do a paper on Jupiter and I went to the library. All the books were from 20 years ago or more.

Dr. Ride: Exactly. You go and sit in a musty old library and the information is guaranteed to be a couple years old at best.


T.H.E.: Do you keep up much with what NASA's up to these days? Do they participate much in education and d'es what they do have an impact on education?

Dr. Ride: Yes, they do. They actually have a very active education division that's able to fund projects, including one of my projects at UCSD. They're very actively involved. Every NASA center has an education division that works directly with schools in their area or in their region. Some NASA centers have almost state of the art distance learning projects, others bring teachers in for technology workshops and that kind of thing.


T.H.E.: Do they have any plans for the future? Are there any specific educational directives planned?

Dr. Ride: They actually have some active educators who are in charge of very large programs, but I think that they act primarily as sort of funding and quality control organization. They'll provide funding and then bring educators together, demonstrate technology, support a program, enable groups to put experiments on the space shuttle or, eventually, the space station. They really are quite active.


T.H.E.: Thanks very much for speaking with us. I had to tell you, I know someone who wanted me to tell you thanks. She said you played an indirect part in her education. When she was in high school, she took an exam to get into a higher level literature class and for reading comprehension, they had to read a piece and answer questions on it. As it turned out, the piece they had to read was a short biography of you. She ended up doing very well on the exam. So she wanted to say "thank you."

Dr. Ride: Well, you can tell her she's very welcome.


T.H.E.: I'll bet you didn't know you had so much impact on literature students.

Dr. Ride: Actually, one of the things that I've enjoyed doing over the last six or seven years is writing a couple of science books for children. Because, you know, there are some good ones out there, but there just aren't enough good ones. Middle school teachers tend not to know about them.


T.H.E.: What are the names of your books?

Dr. Ride: Well, the most recent one came out in 1995. It's called The Third Planet: Exploring Earth from Space. It's for middle school kids and it's basically looking back at the earth, a lot of pictures of the earth that astronauts have taken, and just trying to describe what you can learn about the earth when you view it from the perspective of space.


T.H.E.: Do you plan to work on more books?

Dr. Ride: Actually, I just finished one, again for middle school kids, that's probably going to come out in the fall. The tentative title is The Mystery of Mars.


T.H.E.: With all the Mars hoopla these days, it's very topical.

Dr. Ride: Exactly. It's very timely.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.