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Samantha Thompson Selected to be SOFIA Ambassador

Samantha Thompson of Lowell Observatory and Rich Krueger of the Flagstaff Arts & Leadership Academy (FALA) have been selected for the SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program. Later this year, they will take flight alongside scientists on NASA’s flying observatory.

The Thompson/Krueger team was just one of 14 chosen from a highly competitive, nationwide field of educators. Each team of ambassadors will work with a professional astronomer to experience airborne astronomical research first-hand. Afterward, the educators share what they learned with their classrooms and local communities.

The goal of the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program is to increase scientific literacy. Each year, a new group of educator teams are chosen to fulfil this mission. Dana Backman, SOFIA Outreach Manager, said “There are two components to the applications. The educators have to talk about how they are going to improve the science and STEM education within their institutions, plus they have to have a public engagement plan, a way to somehow leverage their experience into the local neighborhood.”

Because of the limited number of opportunities to fly, many more applications come in than can be accepted. In evaluating the projects, Backman said, “We want to see something that’s innovative. All the ones that were selected had some interesting twists.”

In the case of Thompson and Krueger, one unique aspect involved exhibits the team will build. Thompson said, “We will create one exhibit here at Lowell and one that travels around to STEM fairs, the Festival of Science, schools and elsewhere.”

Because these displays will be shown at both informal (Lowell) and formal (schools) education sites, they will reach a wide range of audiences. Plus, Krueger’s students will gain valuable firsthand experience. Krueger said, “When we take the exhibit to Wheeler Park and classrooms, my students will go and help teach the concepts in the exhibits.”

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is a modified 747SP jetliner equipped with a 100-inch telescope. Flying at altitudes between 39,000 and 45,000 feet, the craft collects data from the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. One of the instruments on SOFIA is the High Speed Imaging Photometer for Occultation (HIPO), a device built by astronomer Ted Dunham and his engineering team at Lowell Observatory. Lowell director Jeffrey Hall said, “Lowell Observatory has long been involved scientifically with SOFIA, so it’s very appropriate to have one of our staff members take part in the ambassador program.”

Thompson is Curator at Lowell Observatory. She manages the observatory’s collection of historical artifacts and designs educational exhibits. She said, “My goal is to make astronomy, and generally science, technology, and math, accessible to all. The SOFIA Ambassador program allows me to do this, and I am very grateful to have this rare opportunity that few people get.”

Krueger teaches primarily high school science classes at FALA, a Flagstaff-based public charter school. He said, “I teach from the phenomena basis, where I give the kids a phenomenon and ask them ‘How do we understand that’. Flying on SOFIA and participating in a research project gives me the tools to do so.”