The next two weeks will be very active on this blog as I report on my preparations and flights aboard SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. I will be traveling to Dryden Flight Research Center a week from today and will fly on SOFIA twice, once on the night of June 25-26 and a second time on the night of June 27-28. But before I jump into all the preparations I’ve been making, I would like to first report on my aerospace activities at the National Science Teachers Association conference in San Antonio on April 10-15, 2013.
Things were very much up in the air for anything related to aerospace education at the conference, and yes, the pun is intended. Because of sequestration, all NASA travel budgets have been cut and most of the full-time NASA education and public outreach personnel that normally come to these conferences were no-shows. Only a few programs were able to make it, and then only if they had alternate sources of funds. The SOFIA people were able to be there and have a booth, but only because some of their funding comes through the SETI institute. I spent quite a bit of the first two days of the conference (Thursday and Friday) helping in the SOFIA booth and explaining the program to passers-by, while also taking some photos and video footage that I can use for my outreach project as an Airborne Astronomy Ambassador. My project will be to create a video that explains the engineering, history, and science of SOFIA and recounts our experience flying aboard her.
I flew from Salt Lake to San Antonio after school on Wednesday, April 10. I stayed at a Best Western about 1.5 miles southwest of downtown, and I did quite a bit of walking to and from the convention center each day. I had agreed to help out in the SOFIA booth, but also had two sessions to present at as well as a number of other responsibilities. When not attending sessions, presenting, or manning the booth, I explored the dealers’ floor and looked for additional opportunities for my students.
On Thursday I attended a good session on useful science apps for the iPad, as it was presented around answering specific questions or problems using iPad apps instead of trying to use the iPad for everything (as if it were a hammer in search of a nail). I attended a session on “The Art of Energizing STEM,” using simple objects to build machines. Although geared for lower and middle grades, I found some good ideas that can be applied to a high school physics class. I also got a chance to talk with Lucinda, whom I had met at the Curiosity Landing Conference at JPL last August.
Other sessions I attended on Thursday were more related to chemistry and I’ll discuss them in my other blog (http://elementsunearthed.com). I did attend the presentation by Bill Nye (formerly the Science Guy) who is now the Executive Director of the Planetary Society. It was nice to finally get to hear his presentation. The last two years, I always had to present at exactly the same time. He spoke of his parents’ story and how they met during World War II, his friendly competition to see who’s house can be the most green with neighbor Ed Begley, Jr., and of the upcoming exhibit at the Smithsonian based on the Science Guy series. He wanted our feedback on what objects should go in the exhibit besides his lab coat. Unfortunately the Grass Car is long since gone, but it could be recreated. He also spoke of how our students today will use their creativity to solve the problems they are inheriting from us, including global warming and greenhouse gas emissions. He spoke of some way-out-there ideas he’s heard of.
We held a reception and Q and A session in a ballroom at the Hyatt for the SOFIA AAA program, but only had a couple of teachers show up, so we all sat around in a circle and explained the program to them. They were from a new charter school near Chicago, and I hope they apply.
On Friday, April 12, I spent most of the morning working with the Aerospace Advisory Board for NSTA. I have been chosen this year to be on that committee, which is a three-year commitment starting this June. It means I get to have a little spaceship badge on my nametag. There were six of us there along with Jodi Roselle, who works for NSTA and whom I have met before through the NASA Explorer Schools program, back when I was the Educator Facilitator at JPL.
In our meeting, we got to know each other and went over our responsibilities. We are to plan the aerospace educator luncheon at the conference each year, which includes getting the dinner and arranging for the guest speaker, which has been an active astronaut in the past. With travel restrictions, this might not be possible any longer, and we may not be able to do a dinner (which is outrageously expensive even for rubber chicken) unless we can continue to get a sponsor (such as Northrup Grumman, the sponsors for the last two years). So we are looking at changing the format to a share-a-thon. We are also responsible for judging the Wendell Mohling Award applications.
One of the other board members is Wendi Lawrence, who is the AESP for the Utah area and is also into LEGO Mindstorms competitions, so I’ll have to pick her brain as I plan the fall class. We will begin official duties in June using telecons. We adjourned early so that we could visit the elementary teachers’ share-a-thon. I had a chance to say hello to Ruth Rudd, one of the original Solar System Educators. This share-a-thon was set up on round tables throughout a banquet hall in the Convention Center, with central refreshments. I think having a keynote address followed by similar milling about and refreshments would be a good idea, and having the share-a-thon presenters be more of a hand-picked, invited group of teachers who are known for their excellence in aerospace education. Perhaps the Mohling award winner should be a speaker as well.
After helping in the SOFIA booth some more, I went to a session on how to read supernova, solar flare, and volcanic events based on ice core data; there are spikes in acidity and nitrate content in the ice correspond to various volcanic eruptions in Iceland and elsewhere, but some of the spikes don’t correlate. Instead, they indicate solar flare activity or even supernova events, such as Tycho Brahe’s supernovas, the mystery of the bright object that appeared on King Charles II birthday (was it Cassiopeia A?) or the huge white solar flare event of 1859 that burned out telegraphs across the country. This data was presented by the education and public outreach personnel from the Chandra space telescope mission. Here is the link to the materials: http://chandra.harvard.edu/edu/formal/index.html
After going to two other sessions related to chemistry, I went out to dinner at Mama Mia’s restaurant with the SOFIA group. There are several of us AAAs here, including Cris DeWolfe, who flew during the summer of 2011, Jim Johnson (partner with Randi Booth, whom I met in Salt Lake City at a geology conference), and Jo Dodds. Dana Backman, Edna Devore, and Coral Clark were here for the SOFIA E/POs. The SOFIA booth also shared space with the SETI Institute and the Kepler mission, so I had lots of opportunities to talk about my favorite subjects.
On Saturday, April 13, I gave my first presentation on the Art of Science and using authentic data in the classroom. I talked about the projects my students have been doing, including the study of soil contamination in the Tintic Mining District (see my other blog) and our 3D model of the SOFIA aircraft and telescope (more on this next post). I showed samples of our NASA Lunar Science Institute moon animations, and discussed my plans for the STEM-Arts Alliance program. I have to write up about five grants over the next two weeks, so we’ll see what happens. I showed how to take a grid of number values, such as pH, and turn it into a 3D model. I didn’t make it through all I wanted to say, but it was a pretty successful session. About 15-18 people attended, and I did get a great idea from one of the attendees to use periodicity of the elements as a 3D model.
I attended the Aerospace Educator Luncheon. I had won a free meal ticket by sending in an essay, like last year, thanks to Northrup Grumman. The meal was actually pretty good, and I had a good conversation with a teacher from northern California that I sat by. I also said hello to Nancy Takashima, another Solar System Educator. The speaker was astronaut and former middle school teacher Joe Acaba, who had spent five weeks on the International Space Station this last August-September. He showed slides and videos of his experience, including moving about, daily routines, sleeping, doing space walks, capturing cargo modules, looking out the viewing window, etc. He also discussed the training in Baikonur, how the Russians have traditions such as each flight group planting its own tree, Russian Orthodox priests blessing them with holy water before a flight, and how the landing and recovery went at the end of the mission. I took some photos afterward, and now have a couple of publicity photos to show as well. I was going to have one autographed for my son, Jonathan, but the line was a bit long.
The rest of my day was spent going to climate change related sessions, including a session by Jason Hodin and Pam Miller of the Inspire 2 Inquiry (I2I) group out of Stanford University. They have created an International Student Carbon Footprint Challenge that calculates the amount of carbon dioxide each student puts into the atmosphere each year depending on where they live and other lifestyle choices. They are providing me with a $200 travel allowance, which helps me attend this conference (otherwise it’s all on my own dime). It was good to finally meet these people, and I walked back with them to the Drury Plaza Hotel so we could hang out by the pool before walking to a restaurant for supper. I was able to take some photos of downtown San Antonio from the roof.
On Sunday, April 14, I attended a session on the New Horizons space probe given by my good friend Julie Taylor, another one of the Solar System Educators. These are all teachers, who, like myself, were chosen to receive thorough training at JPL on upcoming space missions such as Cassini, Deep Impact, Genesis, Stardust, New Horizons, and Messenger. Julie has been an active ambassador for Messenger and New Horizons for years, and we conducted several activities. She also showed a video on IR radiation created by Dr. Michelle Ballard that I need to use in my presentations as well.
My second presentation was specifically about SOFIA and went well, although it was the very final session and I had only five people attend. They were very interested, and we did a small activity from the Active Astronomy lesson plans showing how various colors of crayon show up or don’t depending on the color of paper and the color of filter you look through. I talked about the project my creative computing students (who are in middle school) are working on to model and animate the SOFIA aircraft. I also showed a clip from a program called “Extreme Astronomy” done by the BBC that features a segment on SOFIA. It also features a segment on the Cosmic Ray Center in western Utah, where I’m from. In one part, they are actually driving past my father’s farm.
After the session, I packed up quickly and hoofed it to the Drury Plaza Hotel again for the I2I session, where I gave a brief presentation on how I teach climate change in my classes. I was one of the few physical science teachers there; most others were AP biology teachers and I was a bit out of my league on some of the projects they do, as I don’t even know how to use a pipette pump correctly let alone do electrophoresis or DNA extractions. But I did get some great ideas to use in my classes, and met some wonderful, dedicated teachers from around the country as well as a group from Sweden. Between this session and our discussions at dinner the night before, I feel part of a new family of teachers in addition to the many groups I already belong to. We adjourned at 5:00 and took some group shots.
I flew home on Monday, April 15 via Memphis. It was a great conference, and I was deeply involved as a presenter, an educator, and a leader. I return with many useful ideas, some good contacts that I hope will turn into further opportunities for my students, and a renewed enthusiasm for teaching.