Reaching for the Stars: Sally Ride Science Festival Encourages Girls to Explore Math and Science

Posted: May 9, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Carbon nanotube of gumdrops
Attendees were asked to help construct a carbon nanotube model of gum drops at the Sally Ride Festival street fair.

By Colleen Kearney Rich

“You don’t just watch a shuttle launch, you experience it,” astronaut Kathryn Thornton told hundreds of middle school girls and their parents at the Sally Ride Science Festival on Sunday.

Thornton, who has logged more than 900 hours and walked in space during her time with NASA, was the keynote speaker at the festival, which was making its third appearance at George Mason’s Fairfax Campus.

Thornton described the physics of a shuttle launch in layperson’s terms – how the environment changes for the shuttle watchers as well as those within the orbiter.

Kathy Thornton at booth
Astronaut Kathy Thornton made herself available to festival attendees throughout the day.

“The most magical moment is when you break free of the Earth’s atmosphere,” she said. “In one heartbeat you go from having what feels like the weight of an elephant on your chest to floating.”

Thornton encouraged the festival attendees to explore, to pursue math and science if that was their passion. “People have been exploring as long as there have been people. Now we are exploring off the planet,” Thornton told the group. Girls in the audience seemed particularly interested in Mars exploration and asked Thornton a number of questions.

After the talk, attendees broke into smaller groups to attend Discovery Workshops given by local veterinarians, astronomers, microbiologists and engineers across campus and get the chance to look at a facet of science close up. The festival also offered workshops for adults that provided advice to parents and educators on how to support girls’ interests in math and science.

Hands-on and Inspirational

A grey-and-white cat meowed plaintively in his beige pet carrier as veterinarian Nancy Suska of the VCU Beacon Hill Cat Hospital introduced the Discovery Workshop on the “Science of Cats.”

The girls in the workshop had the opportunity to examine animal X-rays and try to “help” diagnose pet health problems, including broken bones. One of Suska’s patients had swallowed a sewing needle with thread attached and had required surgery. She reassured the group that the cat was doing well.

Kim Blackwell of Mason’s Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study also offered a workshop on veterinary medicine titled “A Day at the Vets,” in which she went over what a veterinarian looks for in a typical pet check-up.

Groups also had the chance to discuss sunspots with Christina Nestlerode, a candidate in Mason’s PhD in Physical Sciences program, and possible ancient oceans on Mars with Suzanne Young of Tufts University and the Phoenix Mars Lander Mission.

“This is the most fun thing I’ve ever done on this campus,” says Sheryl Beach, associate professor of geography and computational sciences, who coordinated the festival on Mason’s side.

As a result, Beach never has a problem finding women scientists willing to teach a workshop. “It is really a magical experience to work with the students, and I’ve heard the same from other participants.”

Several Mason professors, students and alumni were among those giving workshops, as well as scientists and engineers from some of the festival sponsors, including GlaxoSmithKline, AMEC Earth and Environmental Inc. and MITRE Corporation’s Center for Advanced Aviation System Development.

Investing in the Future

Sally Ride was the first U.S. woman astronaut in space. After leaving NASA, she took a position at the University of California, San Diego, as a professor of physics. Ride founded Sally Ride Science while on a leave of absence from the university.

Glaxo Smith Kline booth at festival
The GlaxoSmithKline booth offered a variety of activities to learn more about genetics.

Her company strives to support young women who are, or might become, interested in science, math and technology, by providing them science-oriented programs and experiences.

“This age group is a key time to get girls involved in and excited about math and science. We want the girls to have a chance to meet a woman scientist and perhaps imagine themselves in that role,” says Beach.

Young people also had the opportunity to be inspired by their peers. The festival’s outdoor street fair featured a number of school-age groups. Hannah Guidry, a budding scientist from Girl Scout Troop 6444, was on hand to show festival participants her game, the Climate Change Challenge. Along with other members of her troop, Guidry created the game about global warming and its effects on animals for the 2006 Sally Ride Science Toy Challenge and came home with an award for inspiration.

Katie Cleveland, a freshman at Herndon High School, was helping out in the robotics booth and explaining the school’s robot. Cleveland and her teammates had just returned from two robotics competitions, one in Richmond and another in Atlanta. The high school team competes annually and this year brought home an award for Best Autonomous Period.

The Sally Ride Science Festivals are held throughout the country. Other universities hosting the festival include Duke University, University of California at Irvine and Cal Tech. Sponsors for this year’s festival at Mason included Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, BAE Systems and Stellar Solutions.

“It is also a great opportunity for us to show our research and our facilities and show these girls what Mason has to offer,” says Beach.

Student with robot
Katie Cleveland of Herndon High School with her school’s award-winning robot.
Photos by Colleen Kearney Rich

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