NSTA members Mary Blessing and Cris DeWolf (center) with Dana Backman, manager of SOFIA’s education and outreach, flying at 41,000 feet in May 2011. (Nicholas A. Veronico—NASA/SOFIA)
In 2011, Cris DeWolf was one of six teachers chosen to fly aboard NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA; www.nasa.gov/sofia), a world-class airborne observatory on a modified Boeing 747SP airliner fitted with a 2.5-meter telescope. “I have always actively pursued new experiences to share with my students,” says DeWolf, science department chair at Chippewa Hills High School in Remus, Michigan. “When the SOFIA Education and Public Outreach office first developed their Active Astronomy series of lessons on infrared light and infrared astronomy [see http://bit.ly/zTbaKP], I volunteered to be one of the pilot-test teachers…I also thought at the time that it would be great if I could actually go on a science flight aboard SOFIA.”
The “SOFIA 6,” as DeWolf calls them, were the first participants in SOFIA’s Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors (AAA) program. “I could hardly believe it,” he exclaims. “I was finally given the chance to fly alongside astronomers doing research with a telescope that had been a long time coming.”
SOFIA 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 center of galaxies. A SOFIA research flight offers educators a “unique and powerful experience” because “not many people observe astronomers at work at a ground-based observatory, let alone a portable telescope at 45,000 feet with on-board image processing,” says Pamela Harman, education and outreach manager for the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, which co-manages the AAA program with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in San Francisco, California.
Teachers applied for the program by “submitting an essay that described their teaching practices, how the SOFIA experience would be incorporated into their classroom or informal education venue, and outlined their planned community outreach,” Harman explains. Selected ambassadors will “successfully complete a graduate-level online astronomy course via the National Teacher Enhancement Network” that provides “the preparatory science background,” she notes. Applications are judged by a panel composed of formal and informal educators and education program managers.
“Being a part of this first flight really opened my eyes to the enormity of a NASA mission,” observes DeWolf. “Seeing the contributions made by each member of the mission team to get the flight off the ground has helped me better connect the varied interests of my students to potential careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. We were able to talk with the astronomers and learn about the goals of their research. We were also able to watch as one of the research teams did some troubleshooting on an unexpected problem that arose. Students don’t always see this ‘messy’ side of science, where you have to be able to problem-solve as you go,” he maintains.
After the flight, as part of his AAA duties, DeWolf has shared his SOFIA experience and the Active Astronomy activities at his school, at a summer science camp for students in Pennsylvania, and at science teacher association conferences, such as the National Earth Science Teachers Association Astronomy, Space, and Planetary Science Share-a-Thon at NSTA’s National Conference in Indianapolis. In addition, last fall “all of the ‘SOFIA 6’ presented a variety of infrared astronomy activities to teachers at a workshop at [University of Chicago’s] Yerkes Observatory,” he notes.
In January, 26 more teachers were chosen as AAAs, among them Chelen Johnson, a teacher at Breck School in Golden Valley, Minnesota. “The SOFIA program offers an amazingly unique opportunity” for authentic learning, she says. “Not only will my students and I play an integral role in an authentic research project, but also we will partner with deaf and hard-of-hearing students [from the Wisconsin School for the Deaf] in our quest for a deeper understanding of the infrared world.” Social media, she adds, “is an important part of our students’ lives, and as such, we will establish…an online forum for our students’ collaborations.”