“I had a teacher who encouraged my interest in science. She challenged me to be curious, to ask questions, and to think about things for myself. She helped build my self-confidence. All of these things helped me to become a scientist and an astronaut.” - Sally Ride
Last month, along with four colleagues, I went to San Diego by invitation to represent my district at the Sally Ride Science Academy, a train-the-trainer program intended to give teachers the tools to boost students’ interest in science, technology, engineering, and math careers. Unaware that these were Sally Ride’s final days before losing her life to pancreatic cancer, we joined educators from 16 school districts across the country at a scenic lodge overlooking the Pacific Ocean to take part in the training that Ride herself had helped create just three years ago.
Upon entering my room, I sprawled freely across the king-sized bed and began to consider my preparedness for a week focused on science instruction. I wondered if my understanding of core concepts would be adequate and if I would be able to contribute relevant examples of science-related pedagogy from my own practice. I was suddenly wishing this were an academy on balanced literacy—a topic I’m used to discussing at in-service meetings.
Once we started our discussions, I realized my feelings of insecurity regarding STEM amounted to a case in point. To begin the module, we were asked to work in small groups to create a list of famous scientists from memory. At the end of two minutes, we shared our lists aloud to be compiled on the interactive whiteboard: Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Freud, Copernicus. The names of white men from long ago went on and on until finally a Jane Goodall, George Washington Carver, or Rachel Carson broke the monotony.
Though the outcome of this activity was predictable and the takeaway obvious, the discussions that followed were rich. It was not a stretch to see why white, male students are more likely than other students to see themselves as potential scientists. The teachers at my table agreed that, like our list of famous scientists, the science textbooks and supplemental instructional materials provided to us in our classrooms rarely highlight accomplished women or minorities in STEM careers.
We shared stories of our own personal successes and failures in science as well. Many teachers recalled feeling certain that “science is not for me” at a young age and cited the subtle suggestions of friends, parents, and teachers as the reason. One woman noted that teachers at her current school tend to put more energy into teaching the subjects they like and in which they feel most competent and that these do not usually include science.
The STEM Gap
Plenty of data validate our suppositions. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor indicate that America’s students are not pursuing STEM careers at a rate sufficient to fill the increasing demand, and women and minorities are outnumbered among those students who are choosing to study STEM fields. The National Center for Education Research reports that girls lose interest in science at a much faster rate than boys, beginning for many of them in upper-elementary school. Achievement results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in math and science, however, do not demonstrate a significant gap in aptitude between genders.
Though none of this information was shocking, the numbers were sobering and provided us with a sense of urgency and communal responsibility. To be challenged as professionals to become a force in creating societal change is an empowering statement of respect, and it was well received. Among the teachers present, a burgeoning commitment to the cause was palpable.
So with the issue of buy-in behind us and our level of engagement soaring, we began to discuss strategy. The core of the Sally Ride Science Academy, funded by ExxonMobile, is the research-based Framework for Igniting Students’ Interest in Science Careers (and Science!). The framework directs teachers to foster students’ awareness of the wide variety of science careers, introduce students to diverse scientists, help students get to know themselves better, and guide students in mapping out their goals.
Sharing a ‘Love of Science’
Although we acquired many tools to address each component of the framework, the meat of the academy exists in its capacity to facilitate teachers’ interactions as they reflect on their own journeys as students and as teachers. Examining my own education and professional life, I recalled numerous moments of eager excitement in science, including a field trip to Kentucky Lake as a 4th grade student and using a dichotomous key to identify leaves in middle school. The most positive and fulfilling days of my teaching career have consistently encompassed the effectual execution of science activities, whether it be the creation of simple machines from household items or an extensive field trip to the Tennessee Aquarium.
I shared my stories, and I listened to the stories of other teachers. It was a simple exercise, but it led us to rediscover our love of science. Our connections strengthened our development and allowed us to safely shift our mindsets. We began to discuss pedagogy across the content areas in terms of associations to STEM. Unable to shake the enthusiasm, we spent a considerable amount of our free time exploring San Diego with a fresh perspective. We took photographs of men reading an anemometer, interviewed a biologist at Cabrillo National Monument, and even joined the youth of La Jolla Cove as they poked sea urchins, barked at sea lions, and scooped crabs from tide pools.
By the time I returned home to Nashville, I was already itching to get back to work. As I set up my classroom, I kept the lessons of the academy at the forefront of my mind. I was contemplating the positioning of a “Science Career Corner” when I learned the news of Sally Ride’s passing. Having just been immersed in her work and the execution of her vision, I knew the enormity of her contributions to society and especially to education. The impact of her legacy will continue through the growing community of teachers touched by Sally Ride Science. So as a new school year begins, I will use the insights gained in San Diego as my guide. I will give every student an opportunity to fall in love with science.