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The Legacy of Sally Ride, the First American Woman in Space

Ride made history as the first American woman in space but she was most proud of her Sally Ride Science Academy.

In 1983 every American woman who'd ever been told that she wasn't good at science, technology, engineering, or math cheered as Sally Ride broke the astronautical glass ceiling with her journey aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. Ride, who died on Monday at the age of 61 after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer, will forever be known as the first American woman in space. That's more notable than what most of us will ever accomplish in our lives, but Ride's legacy extends beyond what she achieved as an astronaut.

Ride surely faced countless obstacles along the way to that shuttle because of her gender. Nearly 30 years after her historic trip into space, girls are still too often discouraged from studying STEM and only 25 percent of jobs in those fields are held by women. With Sally Ride Science, the San Diego-based company Ride and other women scientists founded in 2001 to ignite students' interest in STEM subjects, Ride set out to crush the STEM gender gap.

Over the past 11 years the company has produced top-notch classroom materials and run programs and professional development for teachers and students, which "place a strong emphasis on gender and racial equality in the classroom and provide role models of working scientists, engineers, and mathematicians who exemplify this diversity in their respective fields."

In a recent interview with STEM Connector, Ride said that "while being the first American woman to fly in space was an amazing experience that has allowed me to be a role model to many young girls, I am most proud of the Sally Ride Science Academy." This summer nearly 100 educators from across the nation attended the week-long Academy, which since 2009 has helped teachers unpack stereotypes with questions like, "What does a scientist look like" and learn new innovations in science. Those teachers have taken their new skills back to their communities where they have, in turn, trained over 4,3000 other educators.

Thousands of girls across the nation have also participated in Sally Ride Festivals, day-long science-focused fairs specifically for fifth through eighth grade girls, their parents, and teachers and Sally Ride Camps in the summer. Both focus on helping STEM professions come to life for girls through workshops given by scientists and engineers and letting girls work on fun projects.

Providing that enjoyable personal experience is important since, "scientists and engineers are often portrayed as geeky Einstein look-alikes, and our culture still leads too many girls think science is hard and not cool—and not for them," said Ride. "Unfortunately," Ride added, "perceptions can become reality, and that's why I have devoted my life to getting young people, especially girls, excited about science."

Last summer Ride saw three teenage girls sweep the Google Science Fair, which, given her tireless work as a writer, speaker, and activist for women in STEM, had to be a moment of pride. The question now is how do we continue her legacy?

Ride's leadership and inspiration has surely been a factor in some of the new girls-only after school STEM programs as well as initiatives like Girls Who Code, the newest effort to ensure girls have equal opportunity in computer science. But, given that girls still need real STEM role models, it's also up to each of us nurture their capabilities either by personal mentorship, advocating for organizations that work with girls, or financially supporting those efforts.

As NASA administrator Charles Bolden said, Ride's "star will always shine brightly." If we each commit to championing STEM education for girls, we can ensure that what she believed in shines too.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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