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Former Astronaut Encourages Girls to Pursue Science Careers

NASA's first scheduled space flight since the Columbia tragedy two years ago is headed by Eileen Collins, the first woman shuttle commander. There are still very few women in science and technology fields compared with other professions. The first American woman in space, Sally Ride, believes the key to recruiting more women is early education. She's launched several science camps around the United States.

Sally Ride became the first American woman in space 22 years ago. Today, she is a physics professor at the University of California San Diego. She says she gets only two or three women in her advanced physics classes. The problem, she says, starts in elementary school.

“In elementary school girls are really interested in science and they'll tell you that,” says Dr. Ride. “As many girls as boys. But then starting in 5th or 6th or 7th grade, adolescence kicks in and a girl who says she wants to be an electrical engineer at age 11 might get a little bit of a different reaction, still, unfortunately, than an 11-year-old boy who says the same thing.”

So why the change of heart? Dr. Ride believes part of the problem is image.

“If you ask a girl to draw a picture of an engineer, she's going to draw a geeky old guy with hair like Einstein and a lab coat and a pocket protector. And that's an image no 11-year-old girl would aspire to.”

Dr. Ride has launched four science camps around the United States hoping to encourage more young girls to enter science fields and encourage each other.

Riane Sharp is an 8th grader at one of the camps. “We kind of grew as a family. Originally we were all strangers. We got closer together because you need help with this, you cannot do it on you own.”

Sally Ride says there is plenty for aspiring astronauts -- males as well as females -- to do.

“We're finding planets by the score outside our solar system so it's only a matter of maybe a decade before we're going to be able to find out whether there are other planets maybe similar to Earth. And that's a very exciting thing to think about.”

But first, NASA must demonstrate the safety and reliability of the redesigned shuttle. The first mission is commanded by a woman -- Eileen Collins.