(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?
MCJ: Science literacy is not about being able to solve all the equations or being able to come up with Einstein's theory of relativity; it's about figuring out how science impacts your world every day. Just the way you need to be reading-literate, or you need to have mathematics so you can balance your checkbook or understand prices when you go to the store.
You see statistics in the newspaper about what's going on with your health care; doctors give you choices and you have to make decisions; we have referendums put on ballots (things like organic food or not), so there's a level of science literacy that's needed, aside from whether kids grow up to have careers in science. But science literacy also fills the pipeline with those students who will go on to become professional scientists.
TR: If there's a young person reading this who views your career as an inspiration, what would you want him or her to know?
MCJ: I'm going to flip that around because one of the things that happen quite frequently is that people think of this as an issue for young people, but actually, one of the most important things we do with the camp is we train teachers. Teachers have an incredible impact on students.
We also have to understand that parents have an incredible impact, and they need to make a difference as well. So yes, I think about students, but I also want to think about us old gray folks. We need to be making a difference right now and making our contributions.
TR: How do you think the entrance of the private sector into the space program will affect astronaut diversity?
MCJ: You have to remember that the private sector has always been involved in the space program. The shuttle was created by private companies. So what I think is important is that we all become involved and we make sure that we're there from the ground floor up. The private sector will go with who's there. If we — people of color and women — stay in the background; if we don't get in there and assert we have a right to be there; if we don't show up and say that we're going to be involved with the design and the development and put our energy and our effort into it, we won't be included.
SpaceX has women engineers very prominently featured, and that's positive, but Bayer has been doing a lot of studies about women and minorities getting through college in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] disciplines — showing that they're very interested in STEM disciplines at a very high rate when they enter undergraduate programs — but they're graduated in lower numbers despite how well they're prepared. So we have to understand what's going on in college; why are they falling out?
If they graduate and pursue science careers, they'll be involved in cutting-edge research, whether it's to do with space applications, biotechnology, environment, energy, any of those. We have to make sure they're there, though — we have to understand the necessity and importance of that.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.