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High-flying science teacher brings NASA experience back to STEAM

As members of the NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors, Heidi Anderson and Ashley Rosen have banked lots of cool information and heady experiences to share with their students at Bryan Station High School and the STEAM Academy, respectively. They were among some two dozen high school teachers from eight states that the SETI Institute selected for the 2019 program, which featured training in astrophysics and planetary science, content, and pedagogy. “We went full spectrum across the sciences,” Anderson said after her second trek to California.

A major highlight was the 10-hour flight onboard NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, which carries a 106-inch telescope and a suite of seven cameras and spectrographs to study celestial objects. “We were looking back in time – 9,100 light years away for the origin of starbursts in a region of space where they predict they should be. It was absolutely amazing,” Anderson said, recounting the joint project of U.S. and German scientists. “It fits so well with trying to understand how stars develop. It’s chemistry and a whole lot of energy. Our next unit (at Bryan Station) is nuclear chemistry, which fits with all the explosions that go on in stars.”

SOFIA, a highly modified Boeing 747SP, operates at altitudes between 39,000 and 45,000 feet, above more than 99 percent of the water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere that blocks infrared light from reaching ground-based observatories. The pilots and scientists run two flights a week at night; Anderson’s trip in late November took three months to design. “It was exciting to sit with these people and see how they work together as an amazing team. Everybody had a checklist … beyond detail-oriented,” she said, adding, “We got to see a little bit of meteorite showers and some of the aurora borealis (in Canada). It was fascinating to see what was going on in the ionosphere.”

The SOFIA experience is still to come for Rosen, who expects to book her make-up flight sometime this spring. She and Anderson were both supposed to fly during September’s immersion at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California, but SOFIA was grounded for mechanical work. “We were still able to have a full week of facility tours, discussions with researchers, and astronomy professional development,” Rosen recalled.

When the teachers returned to their Lexington classrooms, they implemented a 10-day lesson plan with lab equipment, online resources, and experiments provided by the SETI Institute. “Students used spectroscopes and infrared cameras to see beyond what the eye can normally see and conducted experiments to explore the electromagnetic spectrum. In addition, they took part in research to learn more about some of the missions that SOFIA has been on,” Rosen said.

Now in her fifth year at the STEAM Academy teaching Introductory Physics with Earth and Space Science, Rosen was excited to apply her NASA experience. “Students could see it through my eyes and the activities that I had done,” she said. “I can’t wait to complete my flight mission and have even more to share. This also shows the students that (astronomy) is not out of their reach and that there are multiple career opportunities.”

Anderson, a National Board Certified teacher who has served in FCPS for nearly 20 years, carried notebooks on her SOFIA flight to reflect and keep the memories for future classes at Bryan Station, where she teaches chemistry. “I want to encourage them to think about that dream you have,” she said. “There will be bumps, but it’s so worth it in the end.”



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