Not many students can say their teachers traveled the skies and learned about the universe, but some junior high students in the William S. Hart Union High School District can.
Marisa Heflin, Shelley Turski and Stacy Robb-Wade, junior high science teachers from the Hart district, became “stratonauts” and flew with scientists from around the world on board NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA.
“It’s professional development,” said Turski, who teaches physical science at La Mesa Junior High School, and who was named as one of Los Angeles County’s Top 16 teachers. “We take back what we learn to our kids, and it’s also, for me, a way to regenerate my excitement for what I’m doing. That kind of rejuvenates all my batteries to keep going, especially after all these years.”
Heflin, Turski and Robb-Wade flew through the night above 40,000 feet on the converted 747, a plane, that carries one of the most sophisticated telescopes in the world. The NASA aircraft flies above 99% of the Earth’s water vapor to provide researchers a clear view of the universe.
The three teachers said the process to board SOFIA was extensive. They had to undergo tests, interviews and prepare a year before NASA selected them for the program.
NASA dubs teachers who participated in the program as “Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors” as they trained for their flights, worked alongside researchers and brought back their experiences to the classroom with curriculum from NASA.
“We had an opportunity to talk to all the different people that work on the plane,” said Heflin, who teaches physical science at Arroyo Seco Junior High School. “They have mission directors and telescope operators, and we got to speak with them about science instruments and more.”
The district helped teachers participate in the program. The three teachers mark a total of 17 Hart district teachers who have had the experience of boarding NASA’s SOFIA, said Julie Huffman, Hart district curriculum specialist of science.
The immersive experience benefits teachers and students, according to Huffman.
The three teachers asked researchers about their daily life working for NASA and working on SOFIA. The teachers got to swap seats for the experience, from teacher to student, Heflin said.
“The main focus was star formation,” said Robb-Wade, who teaches physical science at Rio Norte Junior High School. “(Scientists) were comparing star formation in our Milky Way Galaxy to star formation in nearby galaxies.”
NASA staff compared what’s going on in terms of magnetic fields and pressure, Robb-Wade said.
As part of the program, the three teachers had a whole NASA curriculum to teach to their students. They discussed electromagnetic waves, infrared light and star formation.
“I spent some time this week talking with my students about all the possibilities and (my experience aboard SOFIA),” Robb-Wade said.
Next year, when the students return, the teachers will incorporate more lessons from their immersive experience with NASA. The three teachers agreed the program was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“I grew up in the ’ 70s, and when I was a kid, in the ’70s girls didn’t do that (pursue a career in STEM),” Turski said. “Girls didn’t go to work for NASA. Girls were not flight pilots, girls were not astronomers, and girls were not encouraged to do any of that.”
“I was encouraged to be a teacher. Fast forward 30 years later, now is an exciting time for our girls these days because they can dream those kinds of dreams and be on all of these cutting-edge experiences that NASA is revamping and starting up,” Turski added.
Ultimately, the flight invigorated the teachers to continue to educate the minds of their students and hopefully spark an interest in science among them.
“More than just content, like being able to think critically and examine graphs, being able to work together and communicate, just like the all those people on the plane,” Heflin said. “Being able to work in groups is such a big skill.”
“Agreed. They’ve also developed an interest in science. It’s not required, but I’d love to be able to say that I made my students excited about learning about science,” Robb-Wade said.