50 Voices of the Future: Karen Flammer on creating STEAM education opportunities


In honor of UC San Diego Extension's first 50 years, 50 Voices of the Future asks thought leaders about the trends, breakthroughs and social advances they foresee over the next 50 years.

Dr. Karen Flammer didn’t realize she was an anomaly as an aspiring female physicist until her freshman year at UC San Diego, when she discovered there were only two other women in her honors physics class. That’s why Flammer is so enthusiastic about the work she does as the director of education for Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego, inspiring young female and minority students to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

(1) Why is the work you do important?

I feel so passionate that we as educators have to make sure that the next generation of students are scientifically literate; that they have at least a foundational background in math, science, and technology just so they can lead an informed life.

Half of the jobs today in our society require some type of technical background. In the next decade they predict that to be 75 percent. We’re just not going to have the capacity to fill that job force unless we start attracting more students that are currently underrepresented in a lot of the STEM fields.


(2) What are the influential/exciting developments happening in your field now and why?

In his final State of the Union address, President Obama made a plea to Congress to ensure that every student in the country gets hands-on computer science training and math training so that they are set up for success in college and in STEM careers.

And then right after that, he announced the Computer Science for All Initiative, saying that he wants the federal budget to include $4 billion to make sure computer science is taught in schools that serve minorities.

(3) What’s the next big thing?

The next best thing is this work to really target girls and minorities – to get them interested in STEM fields – is now coming from government agencies, corporations, not-for-profits, universities, K-12 schools – not just from grassroots efforts like Sally Ride Science.

Because I think people recognize now that there's a reason – it's not just about fairness. In terms of keeping our country a leader in innovation, we need input from diverse populations.


(4) How big of an impact will your field play in shaping the future of the San Diego region and beyond?

This summer we're launching the Sally Ride Science Junior Academy. The Academy is three weeks of STEAM workshops for middle school and high school girls. (STEAM is just STEM but with the addition of art.) Art is another way to get students engaged in using technology and computers and science.

We use it as an opportunity to expose students to careers that use those skills, letting them see that there are females who fill those professions.

We’re launching another program that’s worldwide. We're calling it "The Constellation: Sally Ride Science Conversations" that's premiering March 1. This is going to be a series of interviews with women throughout the U.C. system in science, technology, engineering, and math, who tell their stories of who inspired them, how they got into the field they're in, what it's like in their day-to-day job.

And we're proud to have that branded with Sally Ride’s name. We've interviewed so many female NASA astronauts and all of them attribute their applying to the astronaut program to her. Because she's the one that broke the barrier.


(5) Hop into your time machine…what does the future look like for this field in 50 years? How can individuals/companies get prepared for what’s next?

My hope is that the population that works in STEM professions reflects our country’s population. If our population in 50 years is roughly 50 percent female and 50 percent male, then that's reflected in computer science jobs, in engineering jobs.

And the same thing with African-Americans in this country and Latinos. Whatever percentage of the population – they're filling the jobs – because that translates into equal access, equal opportunity, equal exposure.

The problems that are facing our country now – we're worried about energy, we're worried about climate change, we're worried about water resources and food resources. Unless we're getting people from all walks of life working on those problems, we're not going to solve those problems.


Learn more about Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego and explore our other Pre-College programs such as Academic Connections, Reading Skills programs for Children and Adults, and Test Prep for the CT®, SAT®, GMAT®, GRE®, LSAT® and MCAT®.

Karen R. Flammer Photo by Ben Tolo/SDSC

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