A Black Female Astronaut's Mission

The Root spoke to NASA trailblazer Mae C. Jemison about filling the pipeline with kids who get science.

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Mae Jemison (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

(The Root) -- Mae C. Jemison, the first black woman ever admitted to NASA's astronaut training program, made history when she went into orbit on the space shuttle Endeavour in 1987, using her training as a medical doctor to conduct scientific experiments in space. Decades later, her missions back on Earth include heading up a company that researches and develops advanced technologies, and promoting science literacy -- which she says means "figuring out how science impacts your world every day" -- among young people and those who educate them.

Jemison, who went to Stanford at age 16 and graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, eventually receiving her medical degree from Cornell, knows firsthand how curiosity nurtured in the classroom can inspire a science career. She recently partnered with Bayer and the United Nations Environment Programme's Regional Office for North America to lead an interactive "Green Living, Green Working" sustainability workshop in which Washington, D.C., high school students were challenged to come up with creative solutions to the regional "green" issues related to health, energy, recreation, education, economy and biodiversity.

The Root caught up with her to talk about why all young people should be comfortable with science, and what it will take to fill the pipeline to careers like hers with women and people of color.

The Root: As the first African-American female astronaut, do you have a particular interest in African-American children and African-American girls specifically?

Mae C. Jemison: One of the amazing things in terms of African Americans is that we've always been involved in the sciences. You've heard the term "real McCoy," right? It comes from Elijah McCoy, a black person who created the cotton gin -- everyone used to say they didn't want a copy, they wanted the real McCoy.

It seems that we forget about the fact that we were always there -- from Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the first person to perform open-heart surgery, to Charles Drew. We don't always incorporate that and understand it. Imagine what they had to go through during that time period. It's a legacy that's very strong. It has nothing to do with me being an astronaut; it has to do with reality, and how we've always been involved in innovation.

TR: What was the goal of your World Environment Day workshop?

MCJ: It was a student workshop put together by the United Nations environmental program and the Bayer Corporation that asked students from D.C.'s Woodrow Wilson High School to look at how they could impact local environmental issues. At the end of the day, they presented some wonderful solutions.

The program is based on The Earth We Share, an international science camp that I've been holding since 1994, that's built around teaching problem-solving and critical-thinking skills by doing two things: having students learn how to critically assess something, come up with solutions and understand how to solve problems, but also training teachers in experiential education.

TR: Why do you focus on science literacy?

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