Pioneering Spirit

UPDATED: April 13, 2011
PUBLISHED: April 13, 2011

Sally Ride is never satisfied. She learned early in life that while she may have to try harder than her male counterparts to prove it, she can do anything she puts her mind to—including breaking the bonds of Earth’s gravity and broadening the minds of young women she has never met.

Ride was the first American woman in space and the youngest person ever to leave Earth’s atmosphere, something that took dedication and a willingness to break down walls in a male-dominated industry. Her pioneering spirit made her a national favorite.

“When I returned from my first flight, I was suddenly a different person in the eyes of the world, particularly girls,” Ride tells SUCCESS. “[Girls] looked up to me; they respected me; I was a role model to a lot of them…. They knew they wanted to be astronauts, but they associated astronauts with me now. I had a lot to live up to, and I felt it was a real responsibility to not let those girls down, not disappoint them, help them believe they could achieve their dreams if they just worked at them.

” After retiring from NASA at age 36, she joined the faculty at the University of California, San Diego, as a professor of physics, and was named director California Space Institute. Again, she was a prominent player of science. She was only 38 years old, but she had already been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, Astronaut Hall of Fame, California Aviation Hall of Fame, National Aviation Hall of Fame and received the Jefferson Award for Public Service.

But still, she felt there was something missing, something she was supposed to be doing. She began writing books about science and space, directed mostly at children in elementary and junior high school. She also made it a point to travel around the country, making appearances and sharing her experiences with young people.

Seemingly everywhere Ride went, she saw girls with a passion for science and the space program. They were curious about what steps they needed to take to follow her path—what did Sally Ride do as a teenager that propelled her into space?

For Ride, an idea was developing—an idea about mentorship.

She knew that two mentors in particular had made all the difference in her life, that without the encouragement of those two people, she wouldn't have accomplished all she had and wouldn’t be in a position to influence others.

One was her father. A political science teacher at a community college in Southern California, Dale Ride didn’t know much about science. But he did know what science meant to his daughter. “He valued education, and he was remarkable in that he believed whatever I was interested in, he should encourage. And he should help me in whatever ways he could to pursue that interest,” Ride says. “Even though he couldn’t help me with my science homework, he took me to the library to show me science books. He spoke with my teachers to make sure they knew I was interested in science. He’d take me to the natural science museum—that kind of thing—to help sustain the interest.

Her father’s encouragement gave her boost she needed to pursue science into high school, where she met a teacher who became instrumental in launching Ride’s career. “She taught me science, but what was really important was that she spent some time with me and helped me believe in myself, helped me improve my self-confidence and self-esteem, to make me believe that I could go on in science,” Ride recalls. “I was starting to have doubts that a lot of students have in middle school and high school—I know I’m doing well now, but do I really have the smarts to go on?” Ride’s teacher spent time with her and convinced her that girls could do what boys could in science, and that as long as she was willing to work hard, she could and should go on to make a career out of her passion.

Faced with the fact that girls tend to lose interest in science around fifth or sixth grade, she realized that role models, nurturers like the people she had in her life, were badly needed. “They start to absorb the stereotype that a scientist or engineer is a geeky, Einstein-looking guy who wears glasses and a pocket protector and never sees the light of day. That’s the kind of thing no 11-year-old girl aspires to be; few 11-year-old boys do either,” Ride says. “Kids are really smart, they internalize these messages. It’s right there that we start to lose them,” Ride says. “We felt that was enough motivation that we needed to do something.”

Ride had found her second calling.

In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science with the help of a few colleagues with more experience in the areas where she was lacking, such as finance. Her sole intention was to motivate girls and young women to pursue careers in science, math and technology. The motivation, Ride says, is the key; the interest already existed.

“We started Sally Ride Science with the idea that we don’t need to convert students— boys or girls—we just need to capture the interest they already have coming out of third, fourth and fifth grade and start countering those subtle, sometimes subconscious messages they’re receiving from society,” Ride says. “We want to sustain and encourage that interest by providing programs that are fun and engaging but introduce them to lots of female role models who are scientists that love what they do.”

Ride began by developing programs for girls, including popular science festivals her company hosts in conjunction with local universities all over the country. The festivals, held on campus on Saturdays, are all about fun first. They include a street fair, exhibits, hands-on activities, music and hundreds of girls from the area who share a common interest in science. A keynote speaker addresses the crowd before the girls break off into smaller workshops led by local female scientists. “By the end of the day, we usually have 800 to 1,000 girls who leave all energized for science and believing that they belong in science,” Ride says.

Of course, not every girl shows up to the festival with the same enthusiasm. Ride tells the story of one girl who very obviously didn’t want to be there on a Saturday, learning science. She told Ride that her parents thought it would be “good for her.” But by the end of the event, the girl was so energized and her parents were so thankful that Ride was even more inspired to pursue her original goals.

“Working directly with the students is very rewarding because you can look the students in the eyes and see that sparkle, see those stars. You can watch them as they grasp the concepts,” Ride says.

As her initiative found success, the company developed tools and programs for parents and teachers alike, arming them to fan the flames of girls’ scientific interests. Ride needed only to think back to how her father influenced her to realize the critical allies parents could be.

In teachers, though, Ride saw an opportunity to reach an even wider audience. She wasn’t interested in convincing them to change what they were teaching, only how they approached the subject matter. “When you start thinking about who really has an influence over students—about the science they take and learn— it’s really the teachers,” Ride explains. “If you reach a teacher, you can reach 30 students, and that multiplies through the years.” The company now teaches teachers how to instruct other educators as well as their students.

Her development of Sally Ride Science has earned the one-time astronaut countless accolades and awards, validating the work she and her team have done over the past decade. In 2006, Ride was awarded the Minerva Award by The Women’s Conference, given annually to women who “changed California and the nation with their courage, strength and wisdom.” The award comes with a $25,000 grant, which Ride funneled right back into program development.

Despite her success, Ride doesn’t have a metric or numbers by which to judge her progress; it’s more like a feeling. “We need to make science cool again,” she says. “If we can make science and engineering cool again, maybe our work is done.”

Orginally published December 2010