It's a woman's world, too

July 29, 2008|By SUSAN REIMER

If Sally Ride hadn't seen the ad in the Stanford University student newspaper - "Astronauts Wanted" - she might never have been the first American woman and, at 32, the youngest of either sex, in space.

But, with doctorates in astrophysics and laser physics, she still would have been a woman scientist, something almost as rare 25 years ago as a woman astronaut.

"I had parents who encouraged me to do whatever I wanted," Ride told a group of middle-schools girls at the Maryland Science Center last week.

"And I had two teachers - women science teachers - who told me that if you are good at science in seventh grade, you will be good at science in high school and you will be good at science in college.

"They told me, 'You don't get dumber as you get older.' They helped me have confidence."

Ride was in Maryland to kick off the celebration of the 25th anniversary of her first trip into space. It is the perfect place, really, because Ride returned to Earth deeply affected by the spectacular view of the planet she had from the windows of the space shuttle.

"I saw our planet as a planet," she told the students at the Science Center's SciGirls camp. "And I saw how incredibly fragile life here is."

She was convinced that Earth should be studied from space the way other planets are studied. Out of her new perspective grew the Earth sciences work now being done at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Beltsville.

She told the girls - 11- to 13-year-olds chosen by their teachers for the program - that no matter what scientific path they choose, from medicine to aerodynamics to mechanical engineering, there is, literally, a place in space for them.

"There is definitely a leak in the educational pipeline," Ride said in an interview. "And it starts in middle school.

"Through the fourth grade, boys and girls report the same level of interest in math and science. Starting in fifth and sixth grade, we start to lose both, but we lose girls in greater numbers.

"The pipeline is completely broken in college," Ride said. "Girls just don't come out of high school declaring a college major in the sciences."

The reasons are many: peer pressure, stereotypes and the boy culture among them. But perhaps the biggest reason is that young girls are keen on relationships. They want to help people and work with people, and they don't perceive that kind of humanitarian role in the sciences.

"Young girls want to feel that what they do has an impact," Ride said. "They don't know that if they have an engineering degree or a science degree, they can do that."

Ride's efforts to engage girls in the sciences through their love of the planet Earth and all its creatures comes at a time when the highest powers in science and government are looking for signs of bias and discrimination against women in the sciences.

New York Times science columnist John Tierney reported recently that federal agencies are considering the use of Title IX, the law forbidding sexual discrimination in education and used largely against biases in college sports, to ferret out bias in the sciences.

One argument against the need for such investigations is the one that Ride makes: There is no doubt women can excel here and their numbers are growing. But it is possible that the interest of women in some fields is not the same as men's interest.

Climate change and damage to that beautiful blue ball in the magnificent slide shows that Ride and Dr. Laurie Leshin from Goddard showed the girls, are two ways to pique the interest of girls and young women.

"The kids are telling us that this is something of interest to them, that this is important to them. And they want to understand the science behind it," Ride said.

This approach makes more sense than using quotas or sanctions to force universities and industries to increase the number of women scientists.

Ride was the first, but today, there isn't a space mission that doesn't have at least one woman aboard, sometimes more, and most of the women fly two or three missions.

"If you hadn't seen that advertisement in the newspaper, what would you have been," one of the SciGirls asked.

"I love science," said Ride. "I'd have been a professor and taught."

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

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Read columns by Susan Reimer at baltimoresun.com/reimer

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