The first American woman to travel in space was in Austin today. Dr. Sally Ride gave the keynote address at an annual luncheon for GirlStart, a local non-profit devoted to getting girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math.
Ride spoke by cellphone with KUT before catching a trip home to San Diego.
KUT News: Why were you in Austin today?
Sally Ride: I gave a keynote address at the annual luncheon at GirlStart, which actually does the same sorts of things that Sally Ride Science does. We're both motivated to introduce more young girls to math and science, make sure they understand the importance of math and science, and then keep them engaged in math and science as they go through upper elementary, middle school, and on into high school.
KUT News: When you were a young girl, what was your experience growing up and how did you get involved in math and science?
Ride: I think my experience was like a lot of young girls. I was interested in science, fascinated by it when I was in second, third and fourth grade. That’s very common today and has been for several decades. In fact, the research shows that 66 percent of girls will self-report that they like science. The problem is not really getting girls interested in science, it's keeping them interested in science.
In my case, when I was growing up, I had parents who were not scientists, but who really valued education. I guess you could say I picked my parents well. They were a little surprised that they had a daughter with this interest in science, but they thought if it was good enough for me, it was good enough for them. They would do whatever they could to support that interest and support my passion in it. They helped a lot in getting me through those upper-elementary and middle school years by talking to my teachers, making sure my teachers knew my interest. And also taking me to science centers and cool science events, which probably they wouldn't have even known about if I hadn't had this interest.
KUT News: Not everyone has parents who are as devoted to education and giving opportunities to their children as your parents were. How do we confront that challenge?
Ride: I think that's a very good point, and that's one of the reasons that organizations like GirlStart and Sally Ride Science are so important. GirlStart puts on programs for girls in that fourth through eighth grade range, which is right when you start to lose them, right when they start to disengage or disassociate from science, primarily for societal reasons. It may not be cool. They may not think it's normal. They may not see it as something for them. They may be influenced by subtle stereotypes of a scientist looking like a geeky-looking guy that looks like Einstein and wears a lab coat and a pocket protector and never sees the light of day.
They start to move away from it at those ages, and that's right when it's so important to have things like summer camps for girls to show them other girls just like them who have these interests. Role models, females who are scientists or engineers. GirlStart runs summer camps. They run afterschool programs. They run some school programs. They're doing a little bit of teacher training now. All of these things are really critical to reach the girls who may not be fortunate enough to have parents like mine who were so engaged in my education.
KUT News: What happens when you walk into the room and you're introduced as Astronaut Sally Ride? How do young girls react to meeting the first American woman to travel to space?
Ride: Usually they're not able to believe they've met someone who's actually been off the planet. It's really quite a surprise for them and quite a shock. I try to make it clear to them that I was once a young girl just like them, and I had the same dreams and aspirations like they did, and if they work hard and dedicate themselves that they can follow their dreams too.