Astronaut Sally Ride—the first American woman to fly in space and the youngest American astronaut—was a trailblazer, an icon, and a larger-than-life inspiration for our nation’s children. She was also a hero to a marginalized and demoralized segment of our population. I am referring, of course, to science educators.
The undeserved media frenzy over Dr. Ride’s reticence to discuss both her lesbianism and her battle with cancer threatens to overshadow her enduring legacy: She was—at her core—a talented scientist who championed the cause of science her entire adult life. Ride will always be remembered as a charismatic astronaut; last week she was hailed as “the Neil Armstrong” of the shuttle era by science journalist Miles O’Brien. But we forget she was no slouch in the science classroom, earning a PhD in astrophysics from Stanford. An excellent obituary by Denise Grady in the New York Times reminds us that after her shuttle career, Ride used her celebrity and celebrated integrity—not to cash in on her fame—but to push for innovation in science education through her educational resource company, Sally Ride Science. Her commitment to science education is even more poignant in this era of No Child Left Behind when public school science education has been utterly decimated. We sure could use a science super hero right about now.
It’s an open secret among educators that students receive much less science instruction today than they did 10 years ago, but many parents are unaware that No Child Left Behind—a law intended to improve the quality of education for all students—has resulted in elementary school teachers being forced to focus almost exclusively on the “tested” subjects, math and literacy. National studies indicate that in many elementary schools, science is hardly being taught at all—and sometimes the meager time allotted each week is shared between science and social studies. Dr. Margaret Honey, president and CEO of the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI), argues in a Reuters Op-Ed, that the timing of this deplorable turn away from science education could not be worse. She asks us to consider what is more important to our current economy than science? “Where would we be without Google and Apple, stealth technology, gene-based therapy, and high-tech prosthetics?”
Beyond economic factors, however, teaching only literacy and math will produce a generation of children who are ignorant of science, history and the arts—the subjects that define who we are as a culture. As a nation, we should carefully consider what subjects our children need to explore, and call for elementary education that reflects those deeply held societal values. We must start to make better choices about how precious classroom time is spent and honestly admit that teachers can’t do it all; they never could. When teachers spend a terrific amount of time completing assessments, important core subjects necessarily suffer. One teacher I know spent nearly the equivalent of 20 entire school days last year on required assessments for her students.
In many schools the buzzword is “integration” when discussing the antidote to the lack of science (and social studies) instruction. Every teacher I know believes in attempting to integrate these subjects into the allotted literacy time, but again, we need to be honest. Quality integration takes more time, planning, and resources than these teachers have. Teachers must differentiate the instruction to meet the needs of all learners, and then secure reading materials for each level of learner in their classroom. It is neither easy, nor quick. And more importantly, it sends the message that science is not important enough to be given its own place in our classrooms. This must change.
What is most alarming about the lack of science education in our public schools is that the students most affected are those in schools with higher levels of poverty. Simply put, poor children receive the least amount of science instruction because teachers in these schools are asked to spend the bulk of their time on the tested subjects, math and literacy. These students do not have the resources to take advantage of summer enrichment opportunities that could potentially fill the “black hole” in their science knowledge. As part of a middle class household, Dr. Ride spent her early years in Los Angeles public schools but later was able to attend a private school (where she received an excellent science education) when her parents secured a scholarship. Science education should not be reserved for the elite or the lucky.
Astronauts and astrophysicists aren’t born, they’re created. Dr. Ride’s interest in science was nurtured at an early age, by both her parents and her teachers. Her sister told reporters last week that, “Our parents taught us to explore and we did.” This encouragement of curiosity and exploration was then complemented by her teachers, including one particular high school science teacher—her mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Mommaerts. Without early cultivation of her interest and her natural facility in science, Dr. Ride would not have pursued a career in physics nor become an astronaut. Period.
But by all accounts from those in her inner circle, Dr. Ride never focused on her fame. As Karen Flammer, a physicist and co-founder of Sally Ride Science, recalls, “Her true passion really was science education, and inspiring young people…to follow a career path in science and technology.” The most fitting memorial to Dr. Ride is to rededicate ourselves to inspiring science education that once again puts exploration at its core.