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LAUSD unveils state-of-the-art science center named for astronaut Sally Ride (video)

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L.A. Unified unveiled a state-of-the-art science facility in Glassell Park Monday that bears the name of the late astronaut Sally Ride, in hopes of inspiring a new generation of students to pursue careers in math and science.

The Sally Ride Center for Environmental Science is a $4.8 million LEED-certified facility that sits behind the Sonia M. Sotomayor Learning Academies. The 6,000 square foot facility, less than a mile from the L.A. River, includes three state-of-the-art labs that will focus on areas such as hydrology and energy. The labs have high-tech, professional grade equipment, including a photovoltaic demonstration system, a PH water lab, a centrifuge, and field spectrometers.

The site will be used not only as a hands-on science lab for students who will conduct water and soil testing and energy conservation research, but also to train teachers. 

Sally Ride's mother and sister were at Monday's ceremony.

"This is the sort of thing that Sally would have been absolutely delighted about," said her sister, Bear Ride. Sally Ride was an L.A. Unified alum who attended Encino Elementary School and Portola Junior High School.

Bear Ride said her sister had been deeply influenced by her math and science teachers.

"In fact, all the astronauts I know tell stories about their teachers pushing in the old black and white TV sets to watch John Glenn being launched into space, and it was those teachers who really caught the imagination of kids," Ride said.

They "learned, if you're curious about how stuff works or why things happen, science is the way to go. There are different ways to get at that, but I think curiosity is the way to do it, hands on stuff. And this is what this center's all about," said Ride.

The facility was built and equipped primarily by a state grant to support career technical education, said L.A. Unified Board member Bennett Kayser. The facility will likely not open to all students until next fall, as the district needs more time to hire a director, sort out scheduling issues, and seek out partners for long-term funding.

In the meantime, the center is being used to train teachers, and for some experiments with students from the L.A. River School, a new pilot school. Kayser said students will be doing research that complements work done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

L.A. Unified has two other similar outdoor classroom programs, including Clear Creek near Mt. Wilson, which is located near the headwaters of the L.A. River, and Point Fermin in the San Pedro area, located at the mouth of the river, Kayser said. "Here we are, right in the center of those two sites. We should be able to do some very interesting research."

Sally Ride was the first American woman to fly in space and youngest U.S. astronaut in 1983. The then-32-year-old physicist and science writer was an inspiration to many women who considered pursuing careers in science and engineering. Ride, who died earlier this year, passionately championed efforts to involve young people, and especially girls, in the sciences.

L.A. Unified officials hope the center will serve as a hub for students at many schools in the area. The district has about 100 campuses that are less than a mile from the L.A. River, Kayser said. 

Christopher Bibelheimer, 14, and his mom Becky showed up at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The Mt. Gleason Middle School eighth-grader, who has cerebral palsy, hopes he'll be able to make use of the facility. He says the center sounds "cool" because "you're not in a book, having someone lecture at you...The fact that I get to go out and do something, that's what I like."

Democratic Assemblyman Gil Cedillo of Los Angeles urged dozens of students present at Monday's ceremony to embrace their inner nerd.

"Science is cool. It's hip. It's what's happening," Cedillo said. "Be a nerd. Own it. Be proud of it. There you go" — he said to titters in the crowd — "OK, if you're a nerd, raise your hand. If you like science and homework."

A few raised their hands.

"If you like your computer, you like your smart phone, if you like all those things."

More hands went up.

"Own it. I'm proud of you. If you're a nerd, like it. Own it."

Watch a small part of the ceremony as Luther Burbank Middle School students present the flag:

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).

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