NASA taps local teacher for flight

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By Tia Lynn Ivey

managing editor 

Alec Johnson, a local Morgan County High School science teacher, will take flight to the edges of the earth’s atmosphere this summer through a special NASA program designed to strengthen science education in the United States. Johnson is one of 28 teachers chosen to serve as an Airborne Astronomy Ambassador. 

“I am extremely thankful and honored to be chosen by the SETI Institute to work with NASA’s SOFIA Telescope this summer in Palmdale, California. As a teacher in the Airborne Astronomy Ambassador program, I will be flying onboard SOFIA to learn from scientists and help to collect astronomy images and data for the scientific community,” explained Johnson. “The program provides training and materials related to Chemistry, Physics, and Astronomy that I can bring back to my classroom and help students learn about light and the universe. Personally and professionally, this is a dream come true as I’ve talked about SOFIA to students for years and it is a one-of-a-kind piece of scientific hardware that I’ve always wanted to see! This will be the closest to space that I’ll ever get and am humbled to be chosen for this prestigious program.” 

“MCHS is super excited to share that our own Alec Johnson will really be shooting for the stars this summer as an Airborne Astronomy Ambassador and will fly on NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) aircraft!” said Dr. James Woodard, superintendent of Morgan County Schools. 

According to a press release, “The SETI Institute has selected 28 teachers from 13 states as 2020 NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors (AAA). AAA is a professional development program for high school science teachers designed to improve science teaching and increase student learning and STEM engagement. Training includes a week-long immersion experience at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center Hangar 703 in Palmdale, California, with participation in research flights on NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). The program culminates in classroom delivery of a SOFIA science-oriented curriculum module.

AAA teachers receive training in astrophysics and planetary science content and pedagogy. After their flights, they teach a two-week physical science curriculum module created by the SETI Institute that focuses on the electromagnetic spectrum using SOFIA science examples as illustrations. WestEd education consultants assess the impact of the specialized curriculum module on student STEM learning and engagement.”

“We are delighted that this new AAA cohort expands the program’s geographical reach and includes teachers from 13 states,” said Dr. Dana Backman, AAA program lead. “These teachers will use their professional development and SOFIA experiences to convey real-world content to their students that illuminates the value of scientific research and the wide variety of STEM career paths available to them.”

According to the press release, “SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP aircraft modified to carry a telescope with an effective diameter of 100 inches. It is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, DLR. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley manages the SOFIA program, science, and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart. The aircraft is maintained and operated from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center’s airborne science facility in Palmdale, Calif.”

The SETI Institute’s NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors (AAA) program is one of 23 programs competitively selected by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. These cooperative agreements more effectively engage learners of all ages with NASA science. Selections were made by the agency’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) in Washington, DC. AAA is funded under NASA SMD NNX16AC51A.

About the SETI Institute

Founded in 1984, the SETI Institute is a non-profit, multi-disciplinary research and education organization whose mission is to explore, understand, and explain the origin and nature of life in the universe and the evolution of intelligence. Our research encompasses the physical and biological sciences and leverages expertise in data analytics, machine learning and advanced signal detection technologies. The SETI Institute is a distinguished research partner for industry, academia and government agencies, including NASA and NSF.  

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