“When I was growing up, science and engineering were really cool,” Sally Ride said in 2009. She was right. In Ride’s childhood half a century ago, astronauts like John Glenn (and later, Ride herself) and researchers like Jonas Salk, developer of the first polio vaccine, were national heroes and household names.
“That’s generally not the case today,” Ride continued. “And that’s a problem.” Again she was right, especially insofar as recruiting the most talented young Americans to careers in science and technology. According to the Washington Post article by Ride’s friend Susan Okie, from which I’ve borrowed these quotations, the first American woman in space, who died at age 61 on 23 July, worked to remedy this problem by developing materials and programs that would interest young people, and especially girls, in science, and help their teachers nurture that interest. Efforts by Ride and others to convince girls they can do science have met with considerable success in recent years, with women now earning the majority of doctoral degrees in life and health sciences. Their percentages in physical sciences and math are also rising.
Ride “realized that elementary and middle-school students were endlessly curious about space travel, and that sharing her experience was a way to get them excited about science and engineering,” Okie writes. So, lack of wonder and fascination at the marvels of science is not the only reason that so many of today’s able young people seek careers other than science.
Back when Ride was young, science and engineering were not just enticing and prestigious fields of study; they were pathways to secure, admired, exciting, and well-paid jobs. In many fields, that is no longer the case. Instead, scientists in various disciplines spend years as poorly paid postdocs or struggle with record unemployment. Until steps are taken to restore scientific and technical careers to their former glory, it’s unlikely, despite excellent educational efforts such as Ride’s, that young people will again consider science “really cool.”