BERKELEY -- Sally Ride, the first woman and the youngest American to fly to space, told a UC Berkeley audience Monday night that science badly needs to update its image.

Too many Americans -- teachers and students included -- see science as an impossibly hard, uncreative and solitary pursuit, she said. And you need only to Google "scientist" to see who, exactly, they are thought to be: nerdy white men with big glasses and wild hair.

Schools can help, she said, by exposing children to scientists of all kinds and backgrounds at an early age (preferably those without pocket protectors. If they have pets, even better). Making science class more interesting -- a lot more like actual science -- would also go a long way, she said.

"Scientists don't memorize the periodic table. Scientists solve problems," Ride said. "Often they get results that they don't expect, and often they learn more than when they get results they do expect."

The physicist and former astronaut came to campus as part of a speaker series sponsored by the UC Regents -- a talk that drew a younger-than-usual crowd. She talked about the morning she learned, through an advertisement in the Stanford University student newspaper, that NASA was hiring women for the first time. She projected images of Florida and Brazil, as seen from space, and told the audience how wonderfully fun it is to be weightless.


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But if America's students don't become better prepared in science and math, they will have a hard time finding living wage jobs, let alone flying to space, she said. In a national science test, less than half of all students in grades 4, 8 and 12 showed a solid understanding of the material, according to a 2009 report card released last month by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

California's scores for grades 4 and 8 were lower than any state but Mississippi.

The tremendous pressure for public schools to deliver on literacy and math, combined with a teaching corps that's underprepared in science, has contributed to the neglect of science education. In a recent report, the Santa Cruz-based Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning found that about one-fourth of science teachers are novices or teaching out-of-field.

"Many districts have turned science into an elective," said Caleb Cheung, the science manager for the Oakland school district.

Last year, Oakland became the second district in the state to make the subject mandatory at its elementary schools. The school board passed a policy requiring 60 minutes of instruction a week in kindergarten through third grade and 90 minutes a week in fourth and fifth grades, starting in 2011.

Cheung and his team run a mentoring program for new teachers, deliver hands-on science kits to elementary school classrooms, and provide training. They started a program called Dinner with a Scientist, held at the Oakland Zoo, in which students sit down with zoologists, chemists, crime techs and others who work in science and technology.

Still, Cheung said, it could be years before all of the city's elementary schools are providing the minimum level of science instruction established in the policy.

Ben Steinberg, whose daughter is a kindergartner at Mira Vista Elementary School in Richmond, is trying to start a rockets and robotics club to stimulate students' interest in science and math. He's also working with teachers at Portola Middle School in El Cerrito to redo the science curriculum with a CSI theme and a focus on forensics.

Steinberg estimates it would take $95,000 to revamp the curriculum -- funding the group is trying to raise through private grants.

Right now, he said, science education at the school is mostly confined to book learning. "Science is so important in the Bay Area," he said. "The curriculum has to be richer than it is right now."

Ride is trying to bring about the same shift, but on the national level. She started Sally Ride Science, a science education company, to bring more children -- girls, especially -- into the fold.

Ride said it's essential to have teachers with a deep understanding of the material. She pointed to Cal Teach, a new program at UC Berkeley that recruits math, science and engineering majors into the teaching field.

Ride said she hoped Americans would embrace science as they did when she was growing up in the 1960s during the Space Race with the Soviet Union. "When I was growing up "... it was really cool to be a scientist or engineer," she said.

"We need to make science cool again."

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at IBAbuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/KatyMurphy.