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A reunion of some high-flying teachers and scientists took place at GLAS Education .

Literally high flying. About 45,000 feet. Which is high enough for infrared sensitive telescopes to gather information about the cosmos without interference from Earth’s atmosphere.

Seven veterans of the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, gathered at the GLAS Education office in person and online for a workshop April 26-28 called “SOFIA to JWST,” along with seven other earthbound teachers and scientists. The SOFIA vets and their colleagues swapped retirement stories, shared family photos, talked about some of their SOFIA experiences. And then they got down to business discussing 3D print design, gadgets and crafting as they planned to modernize and revitalize old Accessible Astronomy Kits developed at Yerkes Observatory more than a decade ago. Their goal is to devise ways to teach about infrared light and other electromagnetic spectra to students who are blind/low vision and deaf/hard of hearing. Before the workshop broke up, participants agreed that the new infrared astronomy curriculum should involve  students in grades six through 12, and integrate light, sound and vibration to teach students the concepts of wavelength and frequencies. 

Five women and one man standing in in front of a poster in a small office filled with technical equipment,
From left, Olivia Smithmier, Kate Meredith, Connie Gartner, Chelen Johnson, Kathy Gustavson and Ed Sadler line up in front of a poster explaining SOFIA’s mission, in a Yerkes Observatory workshop where Yerkes technical staff assembled instrumentation that flew on SOFIA. Gartner, Johnson and Gustavson flew on SOFIA and wear the blue SOFIA flight jackets.

Visible light is just a narrow band within the wide variety of electromagnetic energy that pulses through the universe. Infrared has a wave frequency that is too long for the human eye to detect, but we can feel it as heat energy.

The SOFIA reunion/workshop, paid for by a grant from the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium, was organized by Kate Meredith, GLAS director and project coordinator. The SOFIA flyers at the workshop were Dr. Doyal “Al” Harper, Connie Gartner, Chelen Johnson, and Kathy Gustavson. Attending by Zoom were Peggy Piper, Lynne Zielinski and Marcella Linahan. Joining them at the workshop were educators Pam Greyer, Olivia Smithmier,  Frances Dellutri, Vivian Hoete and Ed Sadler, and GLAS staff member Adam McCulloch. Also joining in was Dylan Hulke, student and GLAS intern. 

Assembling this team of educators who are actively involved in NASA outreach nationwide and many of whom have flown on the SOFIA aircraft will ensure the effective promotion and dissemination of this product.

GLAS will provide copies of the curriculum and resources to Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium members through the annual consortium meeting and the GLAS Education website, Meredith said.

The connection among the SOFIA flyers and the other workshop participants is  Yerkes Observatory when it was part of the University of Chicago. Yerkes technical and scientific staff, including Dr. Al Harper, were involved with creating some of the most important  SOFIA instruments, including the High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera-Plus (HAWC+) which was installed on SOFIA in 2016. He is a pioneer in high altitude infrared astronomy. Starting in 1968, Harper made many flights on the two aircraft that preceded SOFIA. Harper made more than 100 flights on the SOFIA alone.

A white haired woman and a gray-haired man in an office study a the photo on a smartphone they are both holding. They are standing over a table which is covered with a collection of models and photos.
Pam Greyer, left, teacher and NASA Solar System Ambassador, shares a photo on her smartphone with Dr. Doyal “Al” Harper, former Yerkes Observatory astronomer and long-time high-altitude astrophysicist with more than 100 SOFIA flights to his credit.

Yerkes was the center of SOFIA education for NASA from 2008 to 2015 Many of those at the workshop participated in the Yerkes education programs the university sponsored through the Yerkes Education Outreach (YEO) which was first led by Vivian Hoette and then headed by Kate Meredith from 2015 to 2018. YEO developed hands-on kits based on SOFIA research, demonstrating infrared light which were then adapted for blind/low vision (BLV) students. When the university closed the observatory in 2018, Meredith founded GLAS Education to continue the education outreach. 

 Meredith, who is project lead for “SOFIA to JWST,” was one of many teachers who contributed to the SOFIA education project. Through GLAS, Meredith continues opening STEM education and careers to traditionally underrepresented communities. Her work has been recognized by the National Federation of the Blind and the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs. 

While the SOFIA mission has ended, the curricular materials developed from the program have been used widely in  astronomy outreach and represents a treasure trove of resources that GLAS wants to update to reflect the modern technology of the JWST while honoring the continued scientific value of SOFIA science. “SOFIA to JWST” will rejuvenate the original hands-on activities to take advantage of new technologies such as Raspberry Pi sensors and incorporate JWST science, retaining the highest level of accessibility with particular attention to BLV students. 

Without equal access to educational resources, individuals with disabilities cannot aspire to engage in experiences that are known to stimulate interest in STEM careers. The “SOFIA to JWST” project will preserve existing accessible education materials and will expand their scope to include new avenues of exploration and learning. 

SOFIA was a Boeing 747SP (Special Purpose) aircraft with an infrared telescope mounted in its fuselage. SOFIA cruised between 38,000 and 50,000 feet, gathering infrared data from across the galaxy. SOFIA first flew in 2010 and was retired in 2022 after 921 missions. The altitude was important. It lifted the telescope above 99 percent of the Earth atmosphere’s water vapor, which interferes with infrared light. Infrared light, which is invisible to the naked eye, is important because it penetrates interstellar dust and gas that hides so much of the universe from visible-light astronomy. 

Infrared astronomy is now done by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Launched in December 2022, it is in orbit around the Sun about 1 million miles from Earth. There’s very little water vapor there.

Teachers who flew on SOFIA applied to NASA for slots on the airborne telescope. To be selected was a great privilege, the teachers said.

“The SOFIA program was a terrific professional development opportunity that could be directly applied to the classroom,” said Lynne Zielinski. “I learned a lot more about the types of research being done by scientists, the technology needed to operate the telescope and aircraft, and work with the scientists onboard.

“Participation in SOFIA meant all the world to me presenting answers to some questions but creating more questions than answers,” she said.

Three women, two in the foreground and one in the background, posing inside library room. The two women in the foreground are smiling broadly and wearing blue jackets, one with a NASA logo and one with an American flag on its sleeve.
Kathy Gustavson, left, and Connie Gartner, with Olivia Smithmier in the background, pose for the camera in the Yerkes Observatory library. Gustavson and Gartner, both teachers, flew on SOFIA.

“I loved everything about it,” said Kathy Gustavson. “It was such a beautiful experience to be immersed in the NASA world. And you actually felt like you were part of NASA. I loved talking to all of the people involved and getting their stories.” She said she enjoyed bringing all of her experiences to the students and faculty at her school. “I really wish all teachers could have that kind of experience and let kids know that they can be whatever they want to be if they are willing to work on it,” she said.

Pam Greyer and Connie Gartner said they have some goals for the updated hands-on learning experiences being developed at the workshop. “I would like to design the ‘SOFIA to JWST’ product for middle and high school students,” Greyer said.  “The setting would be in schools but there could be opportunities to have activities in the community to share with parents and the community as a whole.”

“I would like to host an annual star party for the local deaf community at the McCarron Field at Yerkes,” said Gartner. McCarron Field is named for Gartner’s late husband, Kevin McCarron,  a skilled craftsman and volunteer at Yerkes who had his own workshop in the basement of the venerable observatory. ” I’ll be thinking through (and) working on that.” She said she’s also begun going through Kevin’s old hard drives “and they’re crammed with great astronomy/STEM ed stuff.”  

GLAS wants “SOFIA to JWST” to  be a well-established resource with hundreds of kits distributed in the Midwest alone, courtesy of GLAS and former Yerkes personnel

The SOFIA flyers who attended the workshop were: 

SOFIA veterans attending by Zoom were:

Once “SOFIA to JWST” is completed, GLAS will provide copies of the curriculum and resources to Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium members through the annual consortium meeting and the GLAS Education website.

Workshop participants included:

Once “SOFIA to JWST” is completed, GLAS will provide copies of the curriculum and resources to Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium members through the annual consortium meeting and the GLAS Education website.

Woman wearing glasses sitting at a table with an open laptop and a big-screen computer terminal to her left. Her hand is resting on an open booklet.
Kathy Gustavson, teacher and SOFIA veteran, works with another participant who is online during GLAS’s accessible infrared astronomy workshop in late April.

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