Sally Ride Science celebrates 20 years in La Jolla as it builds online reach

Sally Ride (front) was the first American woman in space and is the namesake of Sally Ride Science. She died in 2012.
Sally Ride (front) was the first American woman in space and is the namesake of Sally Ride Science. She died in La Jolla in 2012.

Sally Ride Science, a program under the auspices of UC San Diego Extension and named for America’s first woman in space, is celebrating two decades in operation this year. And many of its signature programs are going virtual.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic may have provided a shove for the program to go online, plans were already in the works to expand Sally Ride Science’s reach.

“One of the silver linings in the dark cloud that is COVID is it empowered us to offer Sally Ride Science across the calendar and across the globe,” said Morgan Appel, UCSD Extension assistant dean for education and community outreach. “Sally’s legacy is not just for students in San Diego, not just for students in the United States. It belongs to us all.”

On April 19, 1982, Ride was selected as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Challenger. When Challenger blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 18, 1983, she made history as the first American woman in space.

Two years after her retirement from NASA in 1987, Ride joined the faculty at UC San Diego as a professor of physics and became director of the California Space Institute. She advocated improved science education and representation of women in sciences, holding the philosophy of “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

In 2001, Ride and her life partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, joined with colleagues Karen Flammer, Terry McEntee and Alann Lopes to establish Sally Ride Science in La Jolla. The program presented festivals on college campuses across the country, including UCSD. Under the program, students were exposed to aerospace and engineering opportunities, and the Sally Ride Science Academy for educators provides training on how to incorporate diverse role models into science lessons.

In 2002, Sally Ride Science created a national engineering design competition with student teams, which had to be at least 50 percent girls. Between 2004 and 2013, Sally Ride Science published 90 books, along with teacher guides, for upper elementary and middle school students on topics including astronomy, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers, climate change and sustainability.

A past Sally Ride Science festival, which the program has presented on college campuses across the country, including UCSD.
A past Sally Ride Science festival, which the program has presented on college campuses across the country, including UC San Diego.

In 2012, Ride died of pancreatic cancer in La Jolla.

Three years later, Sally Ride Science became part of the UCSD Extension program and the former company was transformed into a nonprofit. Edward Abeyta, UCSD Extension’s associate dean for community engagement, oversees Sally Ride Science programs, and O’Shaughnessy is executive director.

After Ride’s death, O’Shaughnessy wanted a permanent home for Sally Ride Science.

“A few institutions were interested … and we were approached with all challenges and opportunities associated with it,” Abeyta said. “I said, ‘Of course we want this. Who wouldn’t want the honor of preserving the legacy of the most inspirational woman in aerospace?’”

He had two days to write a business plan to take over Sally Ride Science and bring it into the UCSD fold.

Under UCSD’s direction, Sally Ride Science continued its summer programs, camps, festivals and in-school programs. “We had 800 to 900 kids in our buildings, all doing science,” Appel said.

Through a partnership between San Diego Public Library and UCSD Extension, Sally Ride Science presents free workshops in library branches around the city. The workshops started in 2017 in six branches and gradually expanded to 23 before the program went online due to the pandemic. Nearly 4,500 students in third through 12th grades have taken part. It also offers online professional development for educators based on curriculum developed by Sally Ride Science.

“I think her legacy speaks to adventure, excitement, a pioneering spirit,” Appel said. “Whenever I think of her, I picture her looking skyward. We try to preserve that legacy. We see Sally Ride Science as a north star in the constellation of STEM or STEAM engagement that illuminates paths forward. We want to cultivate a STEM/STEAM/science identity as early as possible. We want to tell girls and boys, ‘Yes, you are a scientist.’ We’re not trying to replace what they are getting in school. ... We are trying to bolster it and generate excitement.”

When most educational programs went online because of COVID-19 restrictions, “we were faced with a critical decision. Were we going to say ‘No, not this year’ or was it important enough that we need to find a new way around?” Appel said.

UCSD had already been planning and building a framework to deliver online programming. So when the pandemic hit, “it lit a fire under us and accelerated the pace,” he said. “We looked at the length of the workshops, how they were delivered, how we would deliver materials.”

As part of the digital outreach, Abeyta said, “instead of books, we knew video was a powerful medium, so we developed a channel through UCTV that allowed us to take lectures and stories and make them into video lessons.”

This year, the Sally Ride Science Junior Academy — through which students assume the roles of space explorer, marine biologist, computer programmer and more as they immerse themselves in hands-on projects — will be online for students entering third through 12th grades. Enrollment is now open.

Further, the Sally Ride Science Women in Leadership panel discussion that started in 2018 will take place virtually for the first time this year, on May 20.

Learn more about Sally Ride Science at ◆