Sally Ride, Women in STEM, and Tips for Creating a Successful Biography Unit

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“I did not come to NASA to make history.”

Sally Ride

She may not have come to make history, but she certainly did. May 26 is Sally Ride Day, celebrated on the anniversary of her birth in 1951. Most of us recognize Sally Ride as the first American woman to go to space. Her first mission took place on the Challenger in June 1983, and she returned to space during a second Challenger mission in 1984. Dr. Sally Ride spent 340 hours in space during her two missions.

Most people don’t know that Dr. Ride achieved many other accomplishments throughout her lifetime. For example, did you know that she received a partial scholarship to an elite girls’ school for tennis? While in college in Pennsylvania, she played on the women’s basketball and field hockey teams and was a top player on the school’s tennis team. In fact, she considered attempting a career in professional tennis.

Fortunately for the space program and women in science, Dr. Ride saw an ad in her school paper for applications to NASA’s astronaut program. Her lifelong love of science and her PhD in physics gave her the background to be accepted into the program—the first time women could apply. 

During her career as an astronaut and the years following, Dr. Ride continued to inspire and become a role model for those interested in STEM careers, especially girls. She wrote six science books for young people, created STEM programs for schools around the country, and became an influential voice in creating space policy while serving as a member of several committees, including the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Sally Ride was much more than an astronaut, but we might not ever have known it if we hadn’t looked for information beyond what is already well known. Understanding the person behind the accomplishments is an important goal of any lesson, especially when teaching how to research and share biographies. 

Luckily, we have many technology tools and resources for researching and sharing information. Providing options to our students fits easily into any curriculum and enables them to take control of their learning and engage in ways that match their learning styles. 

Using Sally Ride as an example, let’s look at some resources to share with students as part of a research or biography unit based on women in STEM careers. As Karen Streeter mentioned in a recent OK2Ask Twitter Chat, “We want our [students] to be curators, not collectors—to learn how to effectively turn information into knowledge through mindful consumption.” Sharing and understanding how to find the information we need is an important skill to teach our students.

  • SciGirls Connect! (reviewed here) – The resources portion of SciGirls Connect! includes video profiles of female role models in many STEM careers, including zoology, different fields of engineering, astronomy, and others. Include this with the tools you share with your students to provide them with information about a wide variety of jobs. The short videos give five-minute overviews of STEM careers and what each role model finds satisfying about their profession.
  • Science News for Students (reviewed here) – In addition to a section devoted to space, Science News provides up-to-date news and information about life, tech, and Earth. Engage students by sharing the word of the week, dig into explainers that take a deeper dive into science topics, or visit Analyze This! to explore science through graphs, data, and visualizations. For younger students, or when differentiating instruction for different levels of reading ability, copy and paste text from the articles into Summarize This (reviewed here) for an overview of the information shared. Another option to make reading easier is Rewordify (reviewed here). Paste the URL of any article found on Science News into Rewordify to read simplified text.
  • STEM in 30 (reviewed here) – This program for middle school students was created by the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Each month, this program releases a 30-minute episode featuring a topic related to aviation and space. Although this program doesn’t specifically feature women, many episodes in the archives focus on women, including “Searching For Amelia” (about Amelia Earhart), “Women in World War II”, and “Fly Girls: Women in Aerospace.” Be sure to sign up for the educator’s mailing list to stay updated on new additions and gain access to educator resources.

As students gather information and prepare to share biographies, provide them with tools that help organize information in meaningful ways. Providing students with a template enables them to focus on the lesson’s learning objectives while exploring information that leads to an understanding of the person behind the famous name. Sally Ride achieved many different types of success. Perhaps some students want to focus on her career as an astronaut; others might look at her career after leaving the space program or choose to take a broader overview of her life from birth to death.

  • Work together as a class to create an anchor chart that outlines information to include, such as significant achievements, childhood events, and birth/death. Use Google Jamboard (reviewed here) as you collaborate and share your anchor chart.
  • It is sometimes difficult for students to identify important information to include in their biographies. The Biography Maker(reviewed here) provides step-by-step ideas for writing biographies, beginning with questioning and concluding with tips for improving writing. 
  • Biography Timeline Templates (reviewed here) share fill-in-the-blank templates that help students look at the chronology and events in their subject’s life. Using a structured organizational template allows students to view the information progression. It also helps to provide a means for selecting the most significant events to include in their work. 

What can we offer to students as a means for sharing their biographies? There are many options and alternatives available beyond a written document. Offering students a variety of opportunities encourages them to participate more fully in learning. It also gives you a break from reading a stack of written reports while still accomplishing your learning goals.

  • Use Canva for Education Timeline Infographic Templates (reviewed here) – to customize infographics to share biographies. Canva provides options to include content from Google Maps, YouTube, and other sites in presentations.
  • Ask students to use Google Docs or Microsoft Word to create a resume to apply for a new position with NASA or a mock resume for Sally Ride’s application to the space program.
  • Create interactive digital books about Sally Ride using Book Creator (reviewed here) or MyStorybook (reviewed here). Include images, audio, student work, and more.
  • Use Wakelet (reviewed here) as a resource for creating biography reports. Find ideas for using Wakelet in education here.
  • Ask students to compare and contrast the lives of women in STEM careers. For example, ask students to use CirclyApp (reviewed here) to create a Venn Diagram to compare the careers of Sally Ride and Mae Jemison, another former astronaut.
  • Offer students the opportunity to create a website for their biography that shares information about their subject. Web page creation tools offer various options. Some tools require fewer design choices, while others have more complex graphic design options and interactive features. Find a list of ideas in the TeachersFirst Edge Web Page Makers collection.
  • How about designating students as screenwriters? Their job is to create a pitch to sell a movie about their subject and an explanation of why it will make lots of money and have millions of viewers. Students can use Genially (reviewed here) to create an interactive presentation (slide show or video) sharing the life story of Sally Ride using links to maps, images, videos, and student research. Take a look at this presentation about Oscar Wilde to see an example.

Understanding trailblazers and leaders from our past helps us look toward the future. History-makers come from all parts of the world and all types of situations. Researching and writing biographies helps students understand the humanity of all individuals. 

Do you have a favorite tool for curating and sharing information with your students? Perhaps you have alternatives for creating biographies that students enjoy using. As always, we enjoy reading suggestions from our readers in the comments below! 

About the author: Sharon Hall

Sharon Hall was a recipient of the Presidential Award of Excellence in Math teaching. With over 15 years of classroom experience as a National Board Certified teacher, Sharon shares her content knowledge and reflections on ideas for basic classroom technology integration with us.

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