OC teachers to take flight as part of NASA training program

Four Orange County science teachers will soar into the stratosphere this summer so they can better study the planets, stars and galaxies, taking what they learn back to their classrooms.

Joshua Gagnier of Santa Ana High School and Sandra Hightower of Century High School, both in the Santa Ana Unified School District, and Clay Elliott and Kim Nguyen from Oxford Academy in the Anaheim Union High School District, have been selected for the NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors (AAA) program.

A modified jetliner used for space exploration flies above the groundThe AAA program was created as a professional development opportunity for high school science teachers designed to improve science teaching and learning, with the goal of increasing student engagement in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. The four Orange County teachers were among 28 chosen nationally for the program that will provide training in astrophysics and planetary science, culminating in a week-long immersion experience at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale in August.

During this experience, the teachers will participate in overnight research flights onboard NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA. The aircraft is a highly modified Boeing 747SP airliner fitted with a 2.7-meter telescope. It also uses a suite of seven cameras and spectrographs to study celestial objects at infrared wavelengths.

“Flying approximately 43,000 feet in the air, we will be above the cloud level and can see a much greater range of infrared light given off by distant stars, planets, nebulae and comets,” said Hightower, a physics teacher at Century High.

Hightower said teachers have already undergone extensive training as part of this program.

“We will be receiving additional training on the curriculum unit that I will implement with my physics students, exposing them to the opportunities and cutting-edge technology in astronomy right now,” she said. “I hope my students will be excited about a future career in a STEM field and realize that there is so much more for them to explore in their future.”

She added that she’s also looking forward to working alongside astronomers and researchers.

“I am excited about seeing the data collected during my overnight flight and discussing it with the professionals who will be on board the flight with us,” she said.

Dr. Dana Backman, AAA program Principal Investigator, said the airborne SOFIA Observatory provides a fantastic opportunity for teachers to better understand and appreciate the research process by interacting with scientists and mission crew members.

“The teachers can then take what they learn back to their classrooms, schools and school districts, conveying the value of scientific research and adding real-world content to high school learning environments,” she said.