Monday, February 25, 2008

Sally Ride: Drawing Middle Schoolers Back to Science

The 2008 Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) conference in Austin brought together over 8,500 attendees and 430 education-technology vendors and featured two keynote speakers: David Pogue, technology columnist for The New York Times, and Sally Ride, former NASA astronaut and the first American woman to travel in space.

As reported in eSchool News, some of Ride's comments should scare middle school teachers, especially those who teach science. Research shows that in fourth grade, most students, boys and girls, say that they like science. But in grades five to eight, that interest drops precipitously, especially in girls.

"We have a culture that encourages students to pursue other interests," Ride said. "Kids want to be accepted. They want to do what their peer group or their parents expect of them." And, too often, she said, that isn't to pursue a career in science.

It's around this age that students also start to internalize the messages they see all around them, Ride said. And the image that most students have of a scientist is a geeky-looking guy in a lab coat--"not what anyone would aspire to," she added.

But the good news is, "we don't need to convert these kids to get them interested in science and technology," she said. "We just need to sustain the interest they already have when they're younger throughout the higher grades."

Ride sounds the alarm not only because the U. S. needs engineers and scientists but because modern life increasingly requires some level of "scientific literacy." Should I eat organic fruits and vegetables? What happens to the plastic exfoliating pellets in my body wash after they go down the drain? What makes cigarette smoking dangerous? What is climate change? All of us need ways to understand and interpret the technology and research around us.

To help, Ride started Sally Ride Science to help educators and parents keep middle schoolers plugged into science. One great feature for middle school students and their teachers is Google Earth's Sky feature. A YouTube video at Sally Ride Science features Ride and a Google employee demonstrating Sky, which offers a fascinating tour of space for class and home use. Constellations are easier to see and understand, especially for city kids who rarely get a clear look at the night sky and its stars. In the video, Ride and friend also show us a stellar nursery! The program contains details on the photos, such as whether they were taken by the Hubbell Telescope or the International Space Station, all great information for follow-up or further research.

On the Resources page, educators and parents can find lots of useful links, including
  • Contributions of 20th-Century Women to Physics
  • Women of NASA
  • howstuffworks which features explanations of how various things, from the human body to technology, work (the home page features videos and popular articles like "How can sugar explode?")
  • Quest, NASA's K-12 Internet Initiative that features chances to talk with people at NASA
  • and Science NetLinks, a site from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for K-12 science teachers
The site also features a page of links for "Engaging Girls." Middle-school girls, their parents and teachers can take advantage of links to EarthKAM which offers searchable photos of Earth from space, Expect the Best from a Girl, the Role Model Project for Girls, science summer camps and much more!

SOURCE: "TCEA 2008 serves up ed-tech wisdom" 02/21/08
photo courtesy of mknowles, used under this Creative Commons license

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