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Sally Ride’s visit inspires the next generation of pioneers

Sally Ride discussed her 1983 journey into space Tuesday evening during the College of Education’s 2008 Distinguished Lecture Series.

Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman to orbit the earth, visited Lehigh University yesterday afternoon just a few weeks shy of the 25th anniversary of her historical mission.

Since she boarded the space shuttle Challenger on June 18, 1983 as its flight engineer, the renowned astronaut has been a role model for a generation of students—particularly young women—interested in science and math. She discussed that inspirational journey Tuesday evening during the College of Education’s 2008 Distinguished Lecture Series.

“Science education is really important just to create scientifically literate citizens, so that today’s students will be able to function, to contribute and to make sound decisions in a society that is increasingly surrounded by science and technology,” said Ride.

“The kids are growing up today when they have to vote on issues and make decisions that affect their lives directly, and that have a basis in science and technology,” she said. “In order to vote responsibly, they need to have some background and way to understand those issues.”

It’s not just about understanding global warming or climate change, Ride explained. It’s about encouraging students to start thinking about science at an earlier age, at a time when young girls, in particular, can cast aside traditional stereotypes about their career choices and opportunities.

An inspirational story

“Dr. Ride brings an incredible level of enthusiasm for science education and is such an inspirational figure in the science community,” says Gary Lutz, interim dean at the College of Education. “She brings with her such a tremendous commitment to America’s youth. It’s an empowering message, and we’re honored that she could share it with the Lehigh community yesterday evening.”

It’s been a lifelong quest for Ride, who made a return visit to space in 1984 before her induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1988.

For the past seven years, Ride has sought to make a difference in young girls’ lives—and in society’s perceptions of their roles in technical fields—through Sally Ride Science. Through that organization, Ride continues to engage and inspire the next generation of pioneers.

“All we need to do is find ways to sustain and support that interest in science that students already have,” says Ride. Nearly two-thirds of all students—boys and girls—enjoy science in the fourth grade, but studies show that students begin losing interest in the sciences before they enter high school. “At Sally Ride Science, we try to show students that science is creative, it is collaborative, that it’s a lot of fun, and that it’s connected to the real world.”

Tales from space

Before addressing a sold-out crowd of over 1,000 people at Zoellner Arts Center, Ride put aside time earlier in the evening to meet privately with 16 girls from Asa Packer and Miller Heights Elementary Schools in Bethlehem. A few members of the Lehigh community also joined the educational session, which featured a lively conversation about science and space exploration.

Students took advantage of the rare opportunity to talk with Ride, who, between answers, shared a few laughs with the eager participants.

Like when she talked about how to clean up when something spills in space.

“We were weightless and I had this bottle of water…and the water would come oozing out, and just sit there in the middle of the room,” she explained. “The good news is, if you spill something, it doesn’t fall to the ground. But the bad news is that you have to chase it around the room.”

It was just one of many stories that captivated aspiring students for the better part of an hour, when Ride discussed a few of her early science experiments, the feeling of weightlessness, and her nerves during her first liftoff.

Community outreach

The informal session capped off a round of interactive science activities for the elementary school students in advance of Ride’s visit to Lehigh. Over the past two months, Gary DeLeo, professor of physics, and a few of his graduate students have been conducting workshops at each school to help generate interest in space exploration. Dr. Kristin Wecht, an alumna from that same department, participated in the activities as well.

It was part outreach program designed specifically around Ride’s visit.

“This was one of the most rewarding outreach programs I’ve been a part of,” says DeLeo, who has served as the director of science outreach programs at Lehigh since 1994. “We’ve always talked about space exploration, but knowing that a few lucky students would have the chance to meet privately with Dr. Ride really created a lot of interest and excitement at the schools.”

Among DeLeo’s activities was SkyWatch 2008 which, despite a few clouds and a chilly March evening, was a well attended. Over 100 students and their families from the two elementary schools used Lehigh telescopes to explore space, the craters on the moon and the rings of Saturn.

They also participated in interactive sessions on “The Human Exploration of Space” and “Astronomy and Space Travel,” as well as weekly meetings about science education between the schools and student mentors from Lehigh University.

The Distinguished Lecture Series is annual event hosted by Lehigh’s College of Education to promote professionals who have made significant contributions to their field. The evening presentation was co-sponsored by St. Luke’s Health and Hospital Network, while the educational Q&A session between Ride and the local elementary students was sponsored by Just Born, Inc.

--Tom Yencho

Posted on Wednesday, April 09, 2008

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