Chances are when you think of Sally Ride, who died yesterday at the far-too-young age of 61, you remember her as the first American woman to fly into space in 1983 when she rode on Columbia for the seventh space shuttle mission, or for her role on the commission that investigated the explosion of Challenge four years later. But for those of us who are working to reform American public education, it was the Los Angeles native’s efforts in overhauling how science and mathematics is taught to our children that stand out as a far more-important legacy.
The daughter of a political science professor who parlayed her physics education into a spot in space after answering a newspaper ad placed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Ride would spend much of her post-space shuttle years teaching science at the University of California, San Diego. By 1999, Ride realized that the far too many kids — especially young women — were losing interest in science after reaching fifth grade, in part because there was little to engage them in such learning. From her perspective, it was important to make it “cool” to be physicists, engineers, and even astronauts. So with her life partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, Ride started working on engaging kids in science by writing The Mystery of Mars, which graphically detailed what scientists were learning from the Pathfinder exploration project.
Two years later, Ride and O’Shaughnessy founded her eponymous science education firm, to focus on improving the science instruction of teachers and develop books and other tools to engage more kids in science. Then she teamed up with oil giant ExxonMobil, whose own efforts at improving science literacy, to launch the Sally Ride Science Academy, which has now trained 657 teachers since its founding.
But it would as a board member of one ExxonMobil spinoff, the National Science and Math Initiative, which is where she made her greatest contribution. Through her role, NMSI has worked to give more young men and women, especially from poor and minority backgrounds, access to the strong, comprehensive college-preparatory education they need to get into the science and math fields that are the drivers of prosperity in an increasingly knowledge-based global economy. This includes its Advanced Placement recruitment initiative, which now works with 228 high schools in seven states to improve the success of black and Latino teens in math and science.
Certainly we have far to go before we provide the kind of high-quality teaching, curricula, standards, and school cultures all of our children need to become the next Sally Rides and Ronald McNairs. But thanks to Ride’s work, we are rallying people to push harder to transform American public education — and getting steps closer to making this a reality. And for that, Ride deserves our thanks.