When COVID-19 forced schools across the country to conduct lessons remotely, teachers faced with a myriad of challenges across a spectrum spanning issues of access to keeping students engaged, to developing new tools and methods that would be effective in this new context. In the case of the SETI Institute’s Airborne Astronomy Ambassador teachers, it also presented some opportunities.
The SETI Institute's AAA program staff recognized an opportunity to leverage our expertise and experience with distance learning. The idea was to support the 2020 AAA teachers by giving webinars for their students on our respective areas of expertise. The teachers were enthusiastic about the idea so, we thought, why not offer this to all the AAA teachers? The response was strongly positive; more than 160 teachers across the country who have gone through the AAA program in previous years had been tossed abruptly into distance teaching and learning during the last quarter of the 2020-21 school year.
We began virtual visits into AAA classrooms talking about the SETI Institute’s science & outreach programs, hands-on science education, infrared astronomy, and accessing and processing NASA infrared mission data. “It was very rewarding to find that the students of our teachers, despite the adverse circumstances, were engaged and interested in our presentations,” said SETI Institute Education programs lead Pamela Harman. Carolyn Bushman, an AAA teacher in Utah who flew on SOFIA in 2013, said, “My students were excited about the SOFIA session with Dr. Backman. Students let me know that it was cool, and they learned a lot; I was impressed by their questions. It brought back many great memories of my SOFIA flight and my AAA experiences.”
“Many of these teachers will still be doing distance learning at the start of next academic year,” said AAA project Principal Investigator Dana Backman. “We are prepared to offer this support again to new students of the AAA teachers. That will be an important part of our mandate to bring information about NASA science content, and the process of NASA science to students across the country.”
People have become much more comfortable using online meeting tools during the pandemic. As a result, guest presentations to classrooms by subject matter experts will be easier, more efficient, and an effective means of engaging and connecting with students.
The NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors (AAA) program enhances student STEM learning and engagement via professional development training for teachers. The program culminates in a STEM immersion week at the NASA airborne science facility in Palmdale, CA, where the teachers participate in research flights on NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).
Since the AAA program began in 2011, 196 teachers from 32 states plus Washington DC have participated as Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors. The current group of 28 teachers will take part in the professional development training and STEM immersion during 2020:
The AAA professional development training kicks off each winter-spring with a series of webinars led by AAA staff (Dana Backman, Coral Clark, and Pamela Harman). The webinars cover infrared astronomy, SOFIA’s mission history and operations, and SOFIA science highlights. This year we forged ahead with the training webinars while state-by-state, the COVID-19 pandemic forced teachers and their students to transition to distance learning.
The Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors project is supported by Cooperative Agreement NNX16AC51A between NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and the SETI Institute.