Daily Herald
Astronaut Sally Ride promotes math and science programs for girls
By Eileen O. Daday | Daily Herald Columnist
Published: 7/21/2010 12:00 AM

Sally Ride, the former NASA astronaut and first woman to fly in space, headlined Motorola's Innovation Generation Network Conference last week, where she was quite the celebrity.

Guests in attendance were thrilled to see some of her photos taken on her historic first shuttle mission before posing with her for pictures and an autograph.

But it turns out Ride shares something in common with teachers in Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 and their recently retired science director Madhu Uppal - they are committed to helping girls overcome obstacles to thinking like a scientist.

Schaumburg teachers were among 100 recipients - from Chicago and its suburbs, as well as across the country - to receive a portion of the $7.5 million in grants to promote STEM programs, or those in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Officials from the Motorola Foundation, which sponsored the conference and awarded the grants - most at a minimum of $25,000 - figured Ride would speak about the need to engage more students in math and technology.

She did, but she started by pointing to a study published by the National Math and Science Initiative. It said that while 68 percent of boys and 66 percent of girls in fourth grade indicated they "liked" science, those numbers began to drop as students got older.

Specifically, a gap formed for girls as they advanced through middle school that indicated they either no longer liked science or were getting subtle cues from peers and adults in their lives that it just wasn't cool.

Last year, Ride launched her Sally Ride Science Academy in San Diego to help close that gap by training elementary school math and science teachers how to spark students' interests in those subjects.

Some of her ideas already are taking place at public schools in Schaumburg, Hoffman Estates and Hanover Park through a program called GEMS, or Girls in Engineering, Mathematics and Science.

It started seven years ago as an after-school club for seventh- and eighth-grade girls to explore science activities.

Last year, it expanded to include elementary schools in the district, targeting the very same age that Ride identified in her talk where the tide begins to turn.

Turns out that girls in the elementary grades flocked to the idea. Now, girls at 20 of the 26 schools in District 54, including all six junior highs and 14 of its elementary schools, have GEMS clubs.

At some, Uppal said, the numbers of girls wanting to participate are so high they have had to divide the group into two sessions during the fall and spring semesters.

Their activities depend on the teachers who moderate the club, but many include crime scene investigation and problem solving. Others include the First Lego League robotics competition, while one school concentrated its efforts on exploring alternative forms of energy.

At the elementary level, one club studied food safety, while another completed a unit on "bubble-ology," or combining chemistry and physics through imaginative experiments with soap bubbles.

"Our whole emphasis has been not to train the girls to be scientists," Uppal said, "but to expose them to enough activities that they overcome any obstacles in being open to science.

"We're trying to eliminate those barriers in order to get them to think like a scientist in how to solve a problem," she added. "If we've done that, we've taken a tremendous step forward."