- 11 Dec 09, 14:54 GMT
A big conundrum facing the US, the UK and many other European countries is this: how do you keep young people engaged in science and mathematics, and how especially do you keep young girls fired up about the subjects?
In a chat with Dr Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, she talked a lot about the stereotypes that create and sustain the situation: girls being led to think that science is a boys' subject; preconceptions of science as dull; the idea that it's just too downright hard.
I certainly remember those messages seeping into my brain, even though I was actually - I'm happy to say - a whizz at trigonometry and consistently scored top marks in my accounts exams.
Dr Ride points out that all children are interested in science. It is innate. They are born curious. They like to know how the world works, how their bodies work, how their favourite toy works and so on. If you are a parent, you know that at a certain age the favourite question of every child is "Why?".
While these stereotypes have persisted for years, Dr Ride believes that the issue has to be tackled at this early stage in order for there to be change up the pipeline.
She also told me that the country has to get excited again about maths and science and she applauds President Obama's efforts with his newly-launched Educate to Innovate initiative:
"On and off, there has been political will to changes things - but this feels different. This feels very special with this president, and perhaps that is because he has two young daughters and is very focused on the importance of a science education."
And while she laments the present situation, Dr Ride recalls how the space race of the 1950s and '60s caught the imagination of the nation:
"When the Soviets launched Sputnik, it completely changed the focus of US education. Suddenly, maths and science became the most important things that could be taught to our kids.
"It became a national priority - and it became really cool to want to be a scientist or an engineer. A lot of kids grew up dreaming of building rockets to the stars. Over the years, we have lost that magic, that focus, that spark."
For years, Dr Ride says, she has worked to redress the balance and to get children hooked on science and maths - especially young girls, who tend to drop the ball on the subject when they are ten and 11.
She runs a company that creates programmes and products to educate and inspire children in these subjects, and with ExxonMobil, she has set up a science academy aimed at helping teachers learn how to get children excited about science.
Dr Ride told me that science was in her blood from a very young age and that she just never lost the passion for the subject. Her plans to either get a job as a research scientist or as a teacher went up in smoke when she saw an advert in the local Stanford student newspaper:
"I had just finished my PhD and was about to start applying for jobs when I saw the Nasa advert. They were looking for astronauts and it was the first time in ten years that they were taking applications and they were looking for women. It was when I saw that ad, that I knew this was something I wanted to do. Something that I had to do."
Dr Ride was one of 8,000 people who applied, and only one of six women included in a class of 35.
And the rest, as they say, is history as Dr Ride became the first American woman and the then-youngest American to enter space as a member on Space Shuttle Challenger.
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