Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ride Sally Ride

It's good to be back on blogger. This will be a long-winded blog because I don't have time to make it concise. :-) I've been thinking a lot about the space program lately. The picture from 1983 shows astronaut Sally Ride working on a mission sequence test for STS-7 at the Kennedy Space Center's vertical processing facility. She is with Anna Fisher, a physician and astronaut.

It's been an interesting week for me personally. I spent the week in a terrific class on enterprise architecture. The instructor and all the students were amazingly smart. They work with very large companies on challenging information technology problems and it was a joy to be able to participate in a class with them. The instructor was highly intelligent, knowledgeable, and a good presenter and teacher.

One of the examples that the instructor used to help us understand stakeholders and their concerns (an important step for enterprise architecture projects) was President Kennedy's goal of reaching the moon by the end of the 1960s. (Who were the stakeholder? The vice-president perhaps? Why was mission control in Texas? The Navy? Why was there an oceanic landing?) Now, to get to my point, the instructor said the requirements for an astronaut were a man who was good at science and engineering, a pilot, and capable of fixing things in case something went wrong. Now, for the entire class, I had kept my mouth closed regarding all the examples referring to managers and architects as males, because it didn't really matter. The meaning was clear. "He" was shorthand for "he or she." Plus I was the only woman in the room and it would have seemed petty to comment. But this statement really confused me. Although I haven't been able to confirm this, I'm pretty sure, even back in the 1960s, the requirement wasn't that the astronaut be a man. Does anyone know? Post a comment on my blog if you do! Thanks.

Another reason I've been thinking about the space program is because I think we are again in need of a challenge like Kennedy's goal to land a person on the moon by the end of the decade (or at least beat the Russians to it). We need something today to get school kids (both girls and boys) excited about math and science again. I remember in 4th grade poring over the Weekly Reader articles that talked about space travel. I was thrilled at the idea that I personally could go to space (I hope I still can). I remember our teachers teaching us "new math" because it was somehow important for the future. I loved Venn diagrams, set theory, base 2 (binary!), and Boolean logic. Usually we did "new math" for a couple weeks and then the teachers scuttled back to making us memorize multiplication tables when they found themselves too far outside their comfort zones, but that's OK.

"New math" was introduced in the U.S. shortly after the Sputnik crisis with a goal of boosting science and math education so that the intellectual threat of Soviet engineers, reputedly highly skilled mathematicians, could be met. What do we need in 2009 to help us boost our math and science skills while also helping us with an important, challenging problem that threatens our economy and national security? I think it's our dependence on fossil fuels. Let's get girls and boys excited about math and science again by getting them excited about harnessing different energy sources, whether it's solar, wind, nuclear, or something that is still just a gleam in the eye of a little girl in 4th grade.


  1. Yay! I'm happy to see you have a blog!

    My daughter is lucky to have a very bright math teacher and the same one for 2 years in a row! She's starting high school next fall! Her school system is doing its best to innovate (something like the new-new-math). However, they're giving the kids an option: they can take traditional math classes throughout high school or they can select track 2 which teaches math from more of a conceptual approach. I get the impression that they're trying to reach students who shun math. She wants to take the traditional math classes.

    Even in Alyssa's middle school, they have a mandatory elective where they take concepts they learn in their regular math class and show how it's used in the real world. She says that everyone thinks it's a fun class.

    The other big change that her math teacher told me about is that they are going to require Statistics in high school.

  2. re: women astronauts...the original astronauts had to be military pilots and the first women officially to fill that requirement did so in 1974. So yes, the astronauts had to be men, but as an extension of another requirement, not explicitly.