Teachers Reach for the Stars to Teach Science
by Donna Ross
During the recent annual CSTA conference in Pasadena I had the opportunity to participate in the field course to NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale. We learned about SOFIA, a joint project between NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). Perhaps most importantly, we learned that the deadline for the next round of educators to partner with scientists on SOFIA flights is November 15.
SOFIA is the largest airborne observatory in the world. It has a 2.5 meter diameter reflecting telescope (approximately the size of the Hubble telescope) mounted in a modified 747SP airplane. The plane has a side port that opens during flight to allow the telescope to be used for approximately 8 hours. On the field course, we were able to tour the airplane and see the modifications. When the interior modifications are finished, there will even be a work area specifically for educators participating on the flights. The plane flies at approximately 42,000 feet, above 99% of the water vapor in the earth’s atmosphere. This allows it to make observations that even larger ground-based telescopes are unable to make. It has advantages over space-based telescopes, too, in that it can be easily moved to view specific objects and inexpensively returned to earth for repairs or upgrades.
SOFIA studies the universe in the infrared spectrum. This is particularly useful for exploring the formation of new stars and solar systems and for looking through clouds of dust in space. In addition, it can explore organic compounds in space. Because the plane lands after each flight, the instruments can be changed to meet the needs of the specific research of the scientists on a particular flight. Full operations should begin next year with over 120 flights per year for up to 20 years.
During the field course, we met one of the teachers who went on a SOFIA flight. She shared how she incorporates the experience into her teaching. She said that one of the most important aspects for her class was the ability to help her students feel proud of the local connection to internationally-known science. She filmed clips of many different employees who work on the project during her flight and she uses those videos to encourage her students to consider careers that use math and science.
For me, the most exciting part of the field course was the impression that everyone on the SOFIA project was committed to science education. From the beginning, the design of SOFIA incorporated a plan for educators to connect with current science findings. There are opportunities for graduate students, teachers, and informal educators to partner with scientists on flights. In addition, there are outreach programs, such as the field course for CSTA members.
The Educator Ambassador program partners two educators from the same area with scientists for SOFIA flights. Detailed information can be found on the SOFIA website. Generally as part of the program, teachers fly on two overnight missions, participate in pre- and post-flight trainings, communicate with scientists, develop a plan to integrate the SOFIA materials into teaching, plan and implement outreach, and take an on-line astronomy course. The teams must include one full-time science teacher grades 6-12. The other partner may be a formal or informal educator from the same school or community. The two educators work on the same outreach plan. Application information is available on the website. Applications are due by November 15.
Airborne Astronomy Ambassador Program: http://www.seti.org/epo/SOFIA.
Donna Ross is associate professor of science education at San Diego State University and is CSTA’s 4-year college director.
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Responses from Readers:
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