Astronaut Sally Ride, a Leader in STEM Education, Dies at 61

By Erik W. Robelen — July 24, 2012 3 min read
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Sally Ride—the first American female astronaut and an influential role model and advocate for STEM education—died yesterday from pancreatic cancer at age 61.

Her impressive resume included not only two flights to space aboard the space shuttle Challenger, but also working as a prominent physicist in academia, holding a leadership post at NASA, and being a member of panels investigating two shuttle accidents.

But one of her passions was working to inspire young people, especially girls, to become interested in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In 2001, she started the private company Sally Ride Science, which she once said was intended to “make science and engineering cool again,” according to The New York Times, providing STEM-oriented educational programs, materials, and teacher training. She also wrote several science books for children.

President Barack Obama issued a statement yesterday lamenting her death and offering a tribute.

“As the first American woman to travel into space, Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model,” the president said. “She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars and later fought tirelessly to help them get there by advocating for a greater focus on science and math in our schools.”

“The nation has lost one of its finest leaders, teachers and explorers,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, said in a statement. “Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism—and literally changed the face of America’s space program.”

"[S]he was a true guiding light in science education,” said Gerry Wheeler, the interim executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, in a press release. “Sally’s work with NASA and her passionate efforts with Sally Ride Science made science fun and engaging for young students. Sally had a special place in her heart for girls and science and as a mentor she worked tirelessly to inspire thousands of young girls to pursue careers in the STEM fields.”

Tom Luce, the chairman of the National Math and Science Initiative, said in a statement: “Sally Ride was an inspiration to all who knew her. She was passionate about the next generation having the math and science skills to create new frontiers as she did.”

Ride was a founding member of that organization’s board. She participated in two space flights on the Space Shuttle Challenger, the first in 1983 and the second in 1984. She went on to become the first director of NASA’s Office of Exploration. In 1989, she became a professor of physics at the University of California San Diego, and director of the University of California’s California Space Institute. She also served on two prominent panels investigating the devastating space shuttle accidents of Columbia in 2003 and Challenger in 1986.

In a 1985 interview with Education Week, Ride discussed the importance of getting more girls interested in science, and of the need for more role models.

“It’s very important for girls in high school to be able to look out in the real world and see women scientists,” she said. “Girls and young women aren’t going into science in the numbers women scientists think they should.”

In the interview, Ride attributed her own development of an early interest in science to strong support from her parents and the fact that she attended an all-girls’ high school. Her parents never made her feel that she was “unusual” for wanting to study science, she said. And at her high school, she recalled, she experienced neither peer-group pressure to drop her science studies nor competition from male science students.

Partly because of her own experiences, Ride said, she believed parents and teachers have the most power to reverse the inequities in science and mathematics training. But the primary problems girls and young women face in these fields are “cultural” rather than pedagogical, she said.

“One of the main problems girls face is the fact that nearly every place they turn they are still confronted with sexual stereotypes,” she told Education Week.

If any readers wish to share thoughts on Sally Ride, including her contributions to STEM education, please post a comment.

Photos: Mission specialist Sally Ride monitors control panels from the pilot’s chair on the flight deck of space shuttle Challenger in June 1983. NASA/AP-File
Ride in a 2003 file photo. Debra Reid/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.