Celebrating Pioneers

This post, by NCTL's Co-Founder and President Jennifer Davis, originally appeared in Huffington Post

This week we mourn the passing of Dr. Sally Ride. It is no exaggeration to say that the word "pioneer" was invented for people like her. The first American woman in space, Ride was an inspiration to a generation of young women and girls who could see the "glass ceiling" shatter as she rocketed beyond the limits of Earth's atmosphere. But, in my view, what makes Sally Ride so phenomenal is that she did not let her singular act of patriotism and courage of becoming an astronaut stand on its own. Instead, she leveraged this accomplishment to continue to push children -- especially girls -- to pursue careers in STEM. In 2001, she founded a company Sally Ride Science with a mission to "to create quality programs and products that educate, entertain, engage, and inspire."
For her, education was the pathway toward greatness and she wanted others to have the same opportunities that she had. As Gerry Wheeler, the interim executive director of the National Science Teachers Association asserted: "[S]he was a true guiding light in science education. Sally's work with NASA and her passionate efforts with Sally Ride Science made science fun and engaging for young students. Sally had a special place in her heart for girls and science and as a mentor she worked tirelessly to inspire thousands of young girls to pursue careers in the STEM fields."
Her example calls to mind the work of another woman pioneer, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Like Sally Ride, O'Connor also broke the "glass ceiling," though in her case, of course, it was by becoming the first female U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Justice O'Connor spoke at the Education Commission of the States Forum earlier this month and addressed her rationale behind founding iCivics and her efforts to re-invigorate civics education. Through video games like "Win the White House" and "Do I Have a Right?" iCivics seeks to teach children about their government, civil rights, and their own obligation to be a responsible citizen. And kids learn all this while actually having fun trying to score points and win prizes. Again, like Ride, O'Connor explained that she came to the conclusion that the key to our nation's future is adequately educating the next generation of Americans.
Interestingly, what both of these women realized was that so many of our current schools were not doing a good enough job teaching those subjects that were dear to them. I'm certain that public education's deficiency in either science or civics is not because educators do not want to include these foundational subjects in the school day, but rather because the current school calendar and schedule force them to make hard choices about what not to include. Sadly, science and civics are often given short shrift. This was one reason my organization, the National Center on Time & Learning, with support from the Noyce Foundation, wrote Strengthening Science Education: The Power of More Time to Deepen Inquiry and Engagement. The report illustrates that improving U.S. student achievement in science requires a more in-depth, multi-layered approach to science instruction that requires more time in the school calendar.
I can only hope that the voice of these women pioneers will help us understand that we should not be letting the limits of the school day determine what is important, but, rather, that to remain a strong country we must ensure that schools provide the rising generation what they need -- science and civics included. Our future depends on it.