Teachers and Researchers Team Up for Education
Twenty-six educators from across the United States are experiencing the ultimate classroom aboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, which flies its missions about 43,000 feet above Earth.
As participants in the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program, the educator teams of two have been partnered with professional astronomers using SOFIA for scientific observations in 2013. They were selected in January 2012 for research flights aboard the airborne observatory.
SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747SP jetliner equipped with a 100-inch (2.5-meter) diameter telescope. The observatory enables the analysis of infrared light to study the formation of stars and planets; chemistry of interstellar gases; composition of comets, asteroids and planets; and supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies.
"The unique design of SOFIA gives educators hands-on experience with world-class astronomical research," said John Gagosian, SOFIA program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. "Working with astronomers, educators participate in a research project from beginning to end and integrate that unique perspective with classroom lessons and public outreach programs."
As the date grew close for their flight aboard the observatory, two Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors from El Paso, Texas, said they were so excited that they had trouble sleeping.
Adriana Alvarez and Mariela Aguirre, teachers at Alicia R. Chacon International School, arrived June 9 in Palmdale, Calif., the location of SOFIA's home base at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility. Alvarez's excitement partly originated from a childhood "NASA game" she played with her father. Alvarez's now-deceased father taught her the names and locations of the constellations and talked about NASA research. She carried those memories aboard SOFIA, feeling her father's presence.
Melvin Gorman and Gordon Serkis of Chinle Junior High of Chinle, Ariz., joined Alvarez and Aguirre on the June 11 flight. They were four of 15 Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors who flew that month and interacted with astronomers and mission managers during night missions lasting almost 10 hours each.
Dan Ruby, who was aboard SOFIA June 25, is one of two informal educators from planetariums to be selected as an ambassador. The purpose of his outreach at the Fleischmann Planetarium in Reno, Nev., is to engage people in the field of astronomy.
"The public perception is that astronomy is dead. It really is not," Ruby said. Many consider astronomy to be enjoyed by "really nerdy people sitting in a dark room looking at stars," he added. What the SOFIA telescope looks at is cool and the fact that it takes place on a plane is engaging. "This is really exciting. The same way that rockets and shuttles are exciting," Ruby added.
Ruby's teammate Matt Oates of the Dilworth STEM Academy in Sparks, Nev., has developed a number of projects for middle school students including high-altitude ballooning. He applied for the Airborne Astronomy Ambassador program as a means to further encourage his students.
Carolyn Bushman of Wendover Junior/Senior High School in Wendover, Utah, flew on the June 25 SOFIA flight with Ruby and Oates. She appreciated the opportunity to watch a team of NASA professionals and planned to tell her students the importance of teamwork. Bushman's students live in a small, isolated community. She will encourage the students to find something they love and then throw themselves into their work to be the best at what they do.
"NASA changed my life. My experiences have given me a lot of confidence," said Bushman. "I want to teach the students to believe in themselves and reach for the stars."
Bushman's teammate David Black is a teacher at Walden School of Liberal Arts in Provo, Utah. Black first heard of the SOFIA program 10 years ago and he wanted to be involved. When younger, he aspired to be an astronaut. He is fascinated by astronomy and loves flying in planes. For those reasons, this NASA experience is the ultimate - although SOFIA's 45,000-foot maximum altitude does not qualify him for astronaut wings.
SOFIA's Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors effort is an annual professional development program extended to educators through a competitive, peer-reviewed process. The goal is to improve teaching, inspire students and inform the public. The program builds upon the legacy of NASA's highly successful Flight Opportunities for Science Teacher Enrichment, or FOSTER, program that flew educators aboard the Kuiper Airborne Observatory from 1990 through 1995.
The effort also has an international element. The German SOFIA Institute, or DSI, at the University of Stuttgart, manages the German component of the Airborne Astronomy Ambassador program. Four German educators are slated to fly aboard the airborne observatory this coming winter.
The Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors come from a variety of disciplines, grade levels and locations. Regardless of their differences, the experience gained by participating in the ambassadors program feeds their knowledge and enthusiasm for frontier scientific research and advanced aeronautical engineering. This enthusiasm will be shared with students and communities who have the opportunity to learn from someone with first-hand experience about how science, technology, engineering and mathematics are all applied to the real-world applications found in SOFIA.
By Beth Hagenauer
Dryden Public Affairs