Los Angeles Biology Teacher Breaks Through More Than Glass Ceilings

Hallmarks of STEM are hands on experiences with science, mathematics and technology. As educators we always say that modeling is the best way to engage students in the learning experience and Susan Goff, Biology teacher at LA SW Early College High School took this mantra to stratospheric heights. Last June, she overcame personal and logistical odds to be among the first group of teachers to fly on SOFIA. SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) that is based and managed at NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif. NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., manages the SOFIA science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) headquartered in Columbia and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart. The NASA SOFIA 747SP aircraft can scan infrared signals to study planetary atmospheres, comets and interstellar star chemistry.

Susan Goff speaks about her experience and why the once in a lifetime opportunity was so important for her students and herself.

Two years ago I came upon an application for this NASA program; it’s called the Stratospheric Program for Infrared Astronomy. And it’s actually a 747 airplane that has been converted to an airplane with a German telescope on board.
There are currently only two flying infrared observatories in the world and SOFIA is the largest. Germany has made the telescope and US has provided the 747 and altered it so that it ‘s a scientific research airplane.
Launched in 2010, SOFIA is a 20 year program and I joined their first cadre of teachers. I was very interested in Astrobiology. I’m a biology teacher, but I like to bring in astrobiology to the students when we are studying extremophiles and life in different environments. I wanted to apply but I needed a partner so I approached our new physics teacher, Cliff Gerstman. I went up to him and said, “I don’t want you to feel roped into anything, but would you be interested in applying to the SOFIA Program, and he was ecstatic. Ironically, he had been following SOFIA for 12 years before they even started converting the airplane. He had been creating lessons on pencil and paper for the program. They selected 26 educators across the US and we were selected. We had to take an astronomy course online, which was challenging because I was a biology teacher. In fact, it was the most difficult thing about the experience. I had to draw on mathematics I hadn’t used in years and learn science that was out of my field. I learned quite a bit. Shortly before we were scheduled for our flight, I was diagnosed with cancer, but I still wanted to go because it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Though I was on a leave of absence, I continued to study, prepare and look forward to the experience.
Finally, last June we flew aboard SOFIA.
You fly at night and you fly for about 10-12 hours. You are in the stratosphere, about 26,000 feet in the air. You fly in the stratosphere because you want to be above the clouds and above the water vapor so you can take infrared photographs and measurements of the universe, other galaxies and black holes. The mission records star birth and death, formation of new solar systems, identification of complex molecules in space, and nebulae and dust in galaxies (or, Ecosystems of galaxies).

Along with the crew and the educators, there were professional scientists who go to do research. They were Physical Investigators from Cornell, Ithaca, and other universities. They pay for time aboard to take measurements for their research. They bring their own instruments on board. We had people from Cornell who were looking at a black hole. The most intriguing part of it was the collaborative nature of science and all the different parts; there were people involved in programming, chemistry, and physics. They weren’t necessarily astronomers. But they would take readings and crunch the numbers into programs to create the various pictures of the universe. When you’re up on SOFIA and you’re looking at planets you think that you are going to see something that looks like what you’ve seen in books. It’s not anything like that. It’s little dots that have a number and you’re disappointed. We learned that the information has to go through programmers who reconfigure it and write a program that shows you what the simulations would look like. The photos we see in newspapers and journals are created when programmers recalculate the math. The collaborative process is fascinating.

Unfortunately, something malfunctioned on the telescope and our trip was cut short. Our two-day flight was over after eight hours. They couldn’t make the necessary repairs in time to continue with our flight, but we had accomplished and learned enough to make the investment of time, energy and sacrifice well worth it. The most important part of the program is that we, as teachers, come back and share what we’ve learned about the electromagnetic spectrum; how it is present in our daily lives and how it has an impact on all areas of research. As teachers we need to raise awareness of engineering, math, and all the STEM disciplines because we’re trying to prepare students for jobs that, perhaps, are not even created yet. We want to prepare the students so they are really applying the math, the physics, the technology, using real time data and using the resources they have available through NASA. NASA has lots of aircraft that look at different aspects of space that are available to educators and students.

Susan Goff recommends: VOYAGES THROUGH TIME Curriculum, a multi year integrated science curriculum for 9-10 graders as an introductory Science Course which engages students in inquiry and multimedia exporation of all the sciences through the theme of Evolution or change over time. It is produced by SETI.