A new science club founded by former astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, aims to link girls who are passionate about science and technology with each other and with women already in science careers.

The goal of the Sally Ride Science Club, founded late last year in San Diego, is to keep elementary and middle-school students from losing their interest in science, math, and technology at an age when statistics show they are most likely to do so. Designed as a forum for girls to discuss math and science, learn from professional women, and participate in science-centered activities, the club aims to inspire the next generation of female scientists and engineers.

“Our philosophy is to keep young girls interested, to introduce them to women role models and show them the range of opportunities open to them,” Ride said in a recent interview.

The club’s current roster of 1,000 members have access to a members-only web site, monthly newsletters, and eMail updates about upcoming science events for girls. Membership costs $30.

Eventually, Ride envisions the club spreading nationally through local chapters that meet after school.

The club is the centerpiece of Imaginary Lines Inc., a for-profit company Ride started last fall to host nationwide community science festivals for girls in grades six through eight, and to offer girls-only events with partners such as Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. The company is also working with Smith College, an all-women’s institute, to sponsor a national toy design contest for elementary school boys and girls. Future plans include developing science-centered products, such as books and computer software.

The combined efforts already are earning praise from club members such as Carrie Leneweaver, a 13-year-old from Chandler, Ariz., who joined the Sally Ride club after her engineer-dad took her to one of Imaginary Lines’ festivals, a daylong event at Arizona State University in March. The honors student said listening to Ride talk about her career was a highlight.

“She talked about how she went off into space and how she saw a hurricane from space. It was really neat,” said Leneweaver, who became intrigued with electronics, circuits, and all things scientific in the fourth grade and has no plans to give them up.

Not every girl feels the same way. Studies show an overwhelming number get frustrated or turned off by math and science beginning in middle school, even if they have succeeded academically in the subjects. Some simply decide math and science aren’t cool.

The result is that while boys and girls do equally well in science and math in the fourth grade, boys pull ahead by the eighth grade, a trend that does not reverse.

“We believe that back in elementary school there are a lot of girls who are really interested in math and science who could very well go on to pursue careers in these fields,” Ride said. “But perhaps they might not get quite the same encouragement that a boy might. A girl might not get quite the same reaction from her friends, or the same encouragement from a teacher. Parents might not find quite the same range of products to support her.”

Ride knows firsthand the importance of a supportive family. Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, she developed a love of science that was supported by her parents, even though neither was a scientist: Her mother was a homemaker and her father, a political science professor.

“As a girl I loved math puzzles. I loved science puzzles,” Ride said. “I was fascinated by the space program.”

At 18, Ride was inspired by watching Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. She went on to study physics at Stanford University. At 27, armed with three degrees in the subject, she answered a call by NASA for astronaut candidates and was one of six women chosen from among 8,000 applicants.

Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983 as a communications officer aboard Challenger, and completed a second journey the next year. (Valentina Tereshkova of Russia became the first woman in space in 1963.)

Today, Ride is concentrating full time on her new mission. As president and CEO of Imaginary Lines, she has raised close to $1 million in private investments and created partnerships with Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and International Rectifier to sponsor events. She also has recruited many of the female scientists who have taken part in the company’s science festivals.

Several moderators said they enjoyed seeing the girls’ excitement about science issues and careers.

“I talked about cancer research and cell biology,” said Susan Kane, a professor of molecular medicine at the City of Hope’s Beckman Research Institute in Los Angeles, who hosted workshops at a festival held at the California Institute of Technology in March. About 900 girls attended the event.

“I found that there wasn’t enough time to talk about everything that I wanted to talk about because the girls were asking so many questions,” Kane said. “It was fabulous.”

Another moderator agreed.

“Not everybody has parents who know very much about science,” said Marianne Bronner-Fraser, the first woman to chair Cal Tech’s faculty, who also participated in the Cal Tech festival. “Once you see that it can be done, it makes it much easier to visualize that you can do it, too.”

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    Sally Ride Science Club
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