Page last updated at 14:43 GMT, Friday, 11 December 2009

Sally Ride on her mission to inspire future scientists

By Maggie Shiels, Technology reporter
BBC News, Silicon Valley

science lesson
Girls tend to get turned off by science around the age of ten or 11

America's first woman in space has set her sights on a new frontier - making science cool for kids.

Dr Sally Ride's particular focus is to get more girls to stick with science and pursue it as a career.

The National Science Foundation said women represent 46% of the workforce but only hold 25% of the jobs in science, engineering and technology.

"I want to right this wrong and have made this the focus of my life at this stage," Dr Ride told BBC News.

"Females are 50% of the population and we cannot afford not to tap into that group of people to the fullest extent possible.

"In this country we don't put the priority on math and science education and it's incredible because our society depends on it so much. We are not raising the next generation of scientists and engineers," said Dr Ride.

Making science fun

The root of the problem is seen as centring around a number of prevailing stereotypes that seem to sway females when they are in the 5th and 6th grades, around 10 to 12 years old.

The industry does not have the right image, the subject is seen as too hard and young girls cannot relate to it in terms of their future.

Some of these issues were aired this week in Silicon Valley at the first of a series of round table discussions organised by Dr Ride that included female entrepreneurs, high tech companies and organisations promoting female education.

Steve Jobs
Campaigners say youngsters need visible role models to emulate

"We are failing in the way we educate. We don't teach in a way that engages students," said Judy Estrin who is chief executive officer of tech consultancy Jlabs and a former chief technology officer for Cisco.

"Parents also need to step up and think about encouraging their children to pursue the subject, not through threat or force but by exposing them to fun experiences like museums and field trips," said Ms Estrin.

A study by the silicon chip giant Intel showed that parents are more willing to talk to their children about drugs than math and science.

Others in the education system believe making the subject relevant to students is key.

"As a scientist and an educator we really do have to step up our game," said Shelley Cargill, assistant professor of biological science at San Jose State University.
If you are a parent, you know that at a certain age the favourite question of every child is 'Why?'
Maggie Shiels
BBC's technology correspondent

"We need to make science relevant to every day life and make it exciting. It's not just about the geeky nerd, its about chemical engineers discovering compounds to make new and safe cosmetics or the newest synthetic materials for the catwalk."

She also said there was a need for positive role models for children.

"Kids don't see this subject as cool because unlike music or movies there is no one out there selling it to them. We need people to stand up and say I am a scientist and this is what I do," said Dr Cargill.

'Life blood'

The issue of engaging students in science, technology, engineering and math has been a long standing one that has had a particular resonance in Silicon Valley, which complains constantly about the lack of graduates with relevant degrees to fuel its workforce.

"Math and science is what Exxon Mobil is all about. We use it every day, 365 days a year among our 14,000 engineers and scientists," said Truman Bell, Exxon's senior programme officer for education and diversity.

Dr Sally Ride
Dr Ride made history in 1983 on the Space Shuttle Challenger

"This defines us as a company and to be competitive we need a workforce that looks like the people who live in this country. Our engineers are the life blood of the company," he told BBC News.

Last year Exxon spent more than $80m (£49m) worldwide on education programmes and in the last 10 years in the United States, that figure was $52m (£31m).

The government has also recognised the need to up the ante in this debate. Last month it launched an initiative called "Educate to Innovate."

President Barack Obama has vowed to devote more than 3% of the gross domestic product to research and development.

"Our schools continue to trail. Our students are outperformed in math and science by their peers in Singapore, Japan, England, the Netherlands, Hong Kong and Korea among others," said President Obama.

"Another assessment shows American 15-year-olds ranked 25th in math and 21st in science when compared to nations around the world."

Warning bell

All of this has an impact on the country's economy and its ability to stay competitive.

The Intel research also revealed that a strong background in these subjects is crucial for American prosperity, security, health, environment and quality of life.

There are fears for the economic future of the country

"The link between math and science education and American innovation and competitiveness is more apparent than ever," said Shelly Esque, vice president of Intel's corporate affairs group.

For a businesswoman like Kim Perdikou, it is a worrying situation. She is the executive vice president of infrastructure products at Juniper Networks, a global information technology and computer networking company.

"From the US point of view, technology innovation will go offshore and that concerns me. We need a talented workforce to keep the jobs here and grow the economy.

"And if the issue isn't addressed, someone else will step up to lead the world in technology and innovation," warned Ms Perdikou.

Dr Ride agreed but said she is equally worried about how young people will function in the world with out math and science skills.

"The world has become a different place and science and technology are becoming basic to our everyday living.

"Kids need these skills if they are going to get a good living wage and become scientifically responsible citizens," said Dr Ride.

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