Inspiring the next generation to reach for the stars: Sally Ride’s science education legacy

By Margaret King

When Sally Ride made history in 1983 as the first American woman in space, she found herself suddenly famous.

Being in the spotlight was uncomfortable for the low-key physicist. But as she traveled the country giving talks and meeting the public, one thought struck her. Her example was a powerful tool for getting young people, especially girls, excited about science.

“Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday,” she said.

Ride co-founded a company, Sally Ride Science, to inspire girls and boys to study science and to imagine themselves in science and technology careers. She used her high profile to champion science education until her death from pancreatic cancer in 2012.

sally_shuttlecockpit.jpgNow, UC San Diego has taken a lead role in continuing and expanding the pioneering astronaut’s education legacy. Sally Ride Science became part of the university in October 2015. The new nonprofit, Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego, is overseen by UC San Diego Extension in partnership with San Diego Supercomputer Center and Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

“Joining with UC San Diego gives us a golden opportunity to continue our mission of bringing science to life for generations to come,” said Tam O’Shaughnessy, Ride’s longtime partner and one of the founders of Sally Ride Science.

Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego has already held summer workshops where nearly 400 girls delved into science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM). The program was the first phase of an ambitious plan to offer a variety of STEAM initiatives, including expanded workshops and professional development for teachers.

Shared Mission
After retiring from NASA, Ride became a professor of physics at UC San Diego. Then in 2001, she joined O’Shaughnessy and three other friends to found Sally Ride Science. O’Shaughnessy is executive director of the new Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego. Another of the company’s founders, UC San Diego space physicist Karen Flammer, is director of education.

sally_festival_headshot.jpgRide and the other company founders understood that science and technology play growing roles in our daily lives and that more and more jobs require math and science skills. Yet research shows that girls and students from underserved communities tend to drift away from science, especially in middle school and high school.

“This happens not because these students don’t like science or aren’t good at it,” O’Shaughnessy said. “It happens because of a lack of role models and subtle stereotypes that send the message that they don’t belong in science.”

As a result, women and minorities are underrepresented in many science and technology fields. Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego works to empower girls and students from underserved groups to  become scientifically literate and prepare to be part of the workforce of the future.

That mission is in sync with UC San Diego’s goals and priorities, said Ed Abeyta, director of pre-college programs and assistant dean of community outreach for UC San Diego Extension.

“A key goal of UC San Diego’s Strategic Plan is cultivating a diverse and inclusive university community that takes bold actions to ensure learning is accessible and affordable for all,” Abeyta said. “Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego connects directly to this goal by giving students access to world-class courses and programming taught by some of the best faculty at UC San Diego.”

Hands-on STEAM Workshops
In July, 372 middle school and high school students took part in the first Sally Ride Science Junior Academy. Participants in the hands-on STEAM workshops took on the roles of robotics engineer, ocean explorer, videogame designer, and more. The weeklong workshops were open to all students, but the emphasis was on engaging girls in STEAM fields.

Students became more adventurous as the workshops went on, said Debi Kilb, a Scripps Institution seismologist who is science director for the Junior Academy. “I watched many girls grow more confident about asking questions and exploring the hands-on teaching units.”


UC San Diego Extension, the Supercomputer Center, and Scripps joined to develop the academy curriculum and provide instructors. The workshops incorporated profiles of diverse scientists from Sally Ride Science’s Cool Careers book series. To broaden the academy’s reach, San Diego Unified School District worked with UC San Diego Extension to  provide more than 100 scholarships.

An expanded Junior Academy is in the works for next summer. In addition, Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego is developing year-round programs at local schools and libraries. The after-school programs would explore many of the same STEAM topics as the summer workshops did. The goal is to make the offerings available to more students.

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