Fast Company

What Sally Ride Did For STEM Education

Change the Equation

Editor's note: Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, died on Monday of pancreatic cancer. She was 61. Outside her trail-blazing career as an astronaut, Ride was also a major champion of STEM education. In 2010, she helped found an initiative called Change the Education to bolster student engagement in math and science programs. Here, again, is that story from September 16, 2010.      

Out of 30 industrialized nations, the United States ranks 21st in science and 25th in math. We’re spending more money than ever on schools, but with few results. Huge federal programs such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are clunky, slow-moving bureaucratic nightmares. The American education system is broken. In order to fix it, the public sector needs to start keeping pace with the private sector. How? By getting the private sector involved.

[On September 19, 2010], President Obama announced the launch of Change the Equation, a CEO-driven initiative to increase student literacy in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). More than 100 companies joined forces--from Facebook to Microsoft, DreamWorks to Google--to improve education in these fields, which will account for some eight million jobs by 2018.

“Change the Equation (CTE) is funded by, directed by, and run with the urgency of the private sector,” explains Craig Barrett, chair of CTE and former CEO of Intel. “The best people to get kids interested in STEM, are the ones doing STEM.”

Barrett says that while many of these companies already invest heavily in education--Intel alone invests $100 million annually--CTE is a vehicle to consolidate their efforts in STEM education. Corporations will drive change on a local level, pushing state politicians to move faster, promoting the adoption of common curriculums, and sponsoring science fairs, robotics competitions, and teacher training programs--the crucial starting points for inspiring children to enter a STEM-related field. What’s more, CTE will also produce state report cards on education, and drive more private philanthropic involvement in STEM literacy.

“We really want these companies putting their money on the ground, into actual programs, and not just sending it off to Washington,” says Barrett.

Likely the most important impact these major companies can have is to inspire children through STEM--the same way the space race served as inspiration for students in the past.

“Change the Equation can change the national dialogue around literacy in science, technology, engineering and math,” says Sally Ride, another founding member of the initiative. “Literacy is not just being able to read anymore. It’s being able to read, to calculate, to analyze--we as a nation need to change the way we think of literacy.”

Ride, who inspired generations of students as the first woman in space, hopes technology companies will have a similar impact on STEM education.

“Kids use Facebook, they have cell phones--they are all participants in this new technology,” she says. “If we can show them that all of these things rely on technology, it will be a great way to engage them.”

“This is the technology that kids hold in their hands every day,” echoes Barrett. “They can see how it changes their lives, and how it will change life in the future. This is the message we want to drive.”

Will Change the Equation improve fluency and interest in science, technology, engineering, and math? Will private sector companies such as DreamWorks and Google inspire a new generation of children just as NASA has in the past? One thing is for certain: Their efforts are far more inspiring than any disjointed and sluggish effort so far put forth by the public sector.

To find out more, head to Change the Equation.

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9 Comments

  • Kevin Lenard

    Lots of the usual stultifying negativity, commenters! Well done! What "Misguided Mel" overlooks is that real innovators all have IQ's in the stratospheric range. There are many of those very bright bulbs who have been shuffled out of the education system, away from becoming well-educated and having opportunities, because the system is fundamentally broken.

    What this President continues to do consistently is attempt, usually blocked by old, change-averse, hidden-agenda, not-too-bright naysayers, radical new approaches. Repositioning the way that the private sector gets involved in the education system is brilliant. Business fires under-performers, and the US education system (with apologies to the numerous, altruistic bright stars amongst them) is currently a repository for underachievers, teachers looking for an easy buck and board members looking to keep things just the way they are.

    Congrats to good governance, as that is what President Obama is struggling to deliver to the American people.

  • Iggy Dalrymple

    The problem is with the teachers and administrators. Since they key campaign contributors to the GimmeCrats, the problem will not be fixed. Only a taxpayer revolt will succeed.

  • Mel Blitzer

    Misguided.

    Real innovators do not come out of lop sided programs that promote certain disciplines such as science and math over the humanities. The world's greatest innovators with the most impact from Leonardo da Vinci, Gutenberg, and Newton through Einstein and Edison were well rounded people whose education and thinking were informed heavily by the arts and philosophy. In the modern era Jobs and Zuckerberg were heavily influenced by design and literature.

    Also your faith in the private sector is misplaced. Corporations have one priority in mind, that is, the corporation. Profit to the benefit of the shareholder is the ultimate goal and it trumps national allegiances and priorities. If the labor is cheaper in India and China the jobs go there no matter what kind of education is provided in the US.

    Do not forget that unmatched economic and political leverage that the US once held in the world was built on a system of solid public education, where the majority of people had access to some kind quality education through the public schools available in their neighborhoods. The genius, inspiration and entrepreneurship of the private sector was matched by genius, inspiration and good governance in the public sector. The reliance on an unregulated private sector to improve life in the public sphere, which came to a calamitous end in the depression, was re- initiated as an article of faith in the Reagan era. This assumption of a better life through the absolutely free market has brought America to the brink of a long slide into mediocrity.

    Finally the remaking of education as certification for jobs in the corporations is hardly the soil from which creativity and innovation spring. Essentially you are educating people to end up inside the corporate box and not likely to think or innovate outside it.

    For America to thrive again good governance must be regained- not little or no governance. This includes investment in public education which encourages the balance of intelligence , spirit and character upon which the country was founded.

  • Anthony Carton

    Science, technology, engineering and math are very important, but so are the humanities. Why bother teaching science if there is no philosophy to balance your search for truth in the world. What use is engineering without design, consumers aren't looking for the next faster microchip, they are looking for the next user centered device with the fasted microchip.

    Math is a tool for communication and analysis, but fine arts are THE area for communication and analysis. If we want the next generation to be able to think critically and analyze, but we aren't willing to subject them to the idea of critique and analysis that is central to fine arts our educational system will continue to be a failure.

  • David Kitkowski

    While we obviously need to see how the whole curriculum comes together, my initial reaction is not enough emphasis on teaching folks how to be healthy human beings. Skills that enable us to find our purpose, protect or increase our self esteem, respect others and the world we live in, deal with loss and live in balance. I can't remember the last time I used calculus however within the last five days, I've had to deal with negative thinking, negative people and rely on good communication skills both at work and in my personal social life to maintain good relationships.

    Are we still focused on created work drones or better yet, folks who measure success by their net worth? I think it's time to get back to helping people learn what it means to be human and the great potential that entails. The internal intertia that real living creates will translate into healthier personal and social interaction, work places and segments of society.

  • Michael Walley-Rund

    Putting so much focus on STEM is a race to the bottom. The liberal arts approach that includes arts and humanities is essential to developing the creativity that allows the United States to be the leader in innovation. Unless our goal is simply to be the most efficient manufacturers, we shouldn't try to beat China at their own game. There's a reason we invented the iPod, but they make it.

  • David Vandenbout

    Problem #1: These are the same companies that import H1-Bs and/or offshore their tech jobs to depress wages of STEM workers. Teenagers see their STEM-trained parents struggling to keep up-to-date and retain their jobs and earning power. They also see the rigor required to attain STEM skills. They come to the obvious and logical conclusion: Get a job in marketing.

    Problem #2: Retired engineers and scientists who would like to teach in a public school are prevented from doing so because they do not have a "teaching certificate" (or whatever the equivalent is in your locale). It can take 1-2 years of mind-numbing courses on educational methodologies to get that. They come to the obvious and logical conclusion: Move to Florida and get in line for the early-bird special.

    Start solving problems #1 and #2. That will yield real, lasting results long after this latest PR effort is forgotten (next year).

  • Patrick R

    If Obama actually wanted to make an impact on education he would stop cutting funding on both the state and federal level. The only way to improve upon education is to improve the quality of people teaching these students not by laying off half the teachers in America. No matter how many new "programs" there are that encourage kids to learn the fact of the matter is that teachers are dealing with 3 times the number of students because there isn't enough funding. I respect the initiative and the idea is great but who will teach them? Let's use private support to find the best teachers and keep them on board.

  • Ana Lomba

    And, in preparation for today's world, STEM programs could be taught in a foreign language. STEM in FL. Or, credit could be given to those who learn a language in addition to STEM. Now, what a great education for young entrepreneurial minds in the 21st global economy! Ana Lomba, www.analomba.com