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NASA, SETI combine to give 3 Anchorage teachers an infrared view of the cosmos

Published: Jul. 12, 2021 at 9:34 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - It was a nearly out-of-this-world opportunity, three Anchorage School District science teachers recently participated in the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program through the SETI Institute, which seeks out intelligent life in the universe, in conjunction with NASA.

The three lucky teachers — Jessica Winn, a multidisciplinary science teacher at Polaris K-12 School; Jennifer Childress, a physics teacher at Dimond High School; and Mark Youngblood, a physics teacher at Bartlett High School — were all chosen for this prestigious and competitive program.

According to the SETI Institute’s website: “The AAA program’s primary goal is to measurably enhance student STEM achievement and engagement in selected school districts via professional development for middle school, high school, and community college science instructors.”

For the three ASD teachers selected, that means participating in a teacher training program aimed at taking what they learn through AAA and bringing it back to the classroom.

The reward for all that extra effort is an immersion experience at a NASA astronomical observatory facility. For Winn, Childress and Youngblood, that meant a trip on a specially modified Boeing 747-SP aircraft called the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy — or SOFIA for short.

“Once you get onto the plane and you’re in the midst of this working observatory, and you’re talking to the scientist, and you’re talking to the telescope operators, the mission directors, the pilots, you realize it’s more than just the science,” Winn said. “This is something that is the last hands-on way to look at space.”

After back-to-back delayed attempts, the third time really was the charm for this group. The Alaska teacher trio took off from NASA’s Armstrong Research Facility in Palmdale, California, on June 29, according to Winn.

Once up in the sky, the excitement started to build as they entered the stratosphere.

“They’re looking at what’s called spectroscopy to be able to try to see what kind of elements are in planetary atmospheres or on asteroids,” Childress said. “They’re looking for signs of life out there, all sorts of things.”

To do this, the scientist aboard SOFIA use infrared technology that, according to NASA’s website, makes it possible to study a variety of stellar objects and phenomena.

For Winn, the best word to describe the research was “exciting.” She added that she was “really interested at looking at deep space galaxies, where there are large star formations.”

Exploring the cosmos is the sort of thing that can inspire, and that is the aim of the AAA program. While it’s the teachers on this trip who get to experience rubbing elbows with some of NASA and SETI’s best and brightest, the curriculum they will bring back to Alaska, along with the stories they will tell, will influence their students.

“We are kind of like a bridge to the public,” Youngblood said. “So we can kind of explain some of the science that’s going on so that, hopefully, those students can also relay that message to their parents and their community so that, maybe, people can understand quite a bit better about why we’re doing it and why it’s important.”

The AAA program does its best to bring teachers from around the country a little bit closer to the stars, and in turn, those same teachers help bring the stars a little bit closer to their students.

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