To Infrared, and Beyond with Kathryn Smith

by | Nov 25, 2019 | Closeup

The SETI Institute is a non-profit corporation that explores, understands and explains the origin and nature of life in the universe and the evolution of intelligence. This past October, the Institute partnered with high school districts in eight states, selecting a total of 14 teachers for the 2019 NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors (AAA)program where scientists, researchers, and the teachers got to analyze data taken from space. This SETI managed program provides a great opportunity for teachers to understand and appreciate the research process of exploring infrared images in a better way. Also, it gives them a real-world experience to take back and further inspire students interested in the STEM fields. Participating teachers receive training in astrophysics and planetary science, along with flight training. Their training includes a week-long immersion experience at NASA’s Flight Research Center Hangar 703 in Palmdale, California, with participation in research flights aboard NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). Kathryn Smith, an advanced placement Chemistry and Physics Teacher at Hart High School, was one of the chosen few to make it on this mission.
For most of her adult life, Kathryn has been teaching. Holding a degree in Chemistry she took on the task and was excited to utilize her knowledge in science during the SOFIA mission.
“I have taught almost all levels of Chemistry and Physics at Hart High providing me a wide variety of experiences in both,” says Kathryn.
In college, Kathryn found that working with peers was often more difficult than the curriculum and she is grateful to see positive development in the last few years.
“I was very happy when I saw a lot of leadership roles were for women: the scientist , telescope operators and one of our pilots were women. In college in my physics and math classes; getting along with your peers and finding ways to socialize when you are the minority in the group was rough,” says Kathryn recalling college experiences and her flight on SOIFA.
Her advice to her students and young women in the STEM related industries is,” have patience and as you grow [emotionally and physically] to remember everyone is growing too and when negative things happen to politely correct the negativity and learn from it.”
To be a part of the SOFIA mission was quite the process. “Any teacher who has three years of teaching physics, earth science or astronomy could apply. You submit essays explaining who you are, what you teach and what leadership roles you have taken on at work and what kind of population you work with and a panel of people decide on this process,” she shared. During the mission teachers are able to observe the scientist, ask questions, and work in the dedicated teacher workstation which allowed them to analyze data in the visible light spectrum on a ten-hour, overnight flight. Prior to the flight, Kathryn studied several webinars to include Astronomy courses to understand the language and terms used and even a course on the plane and the various instruments used throughout the evolution.
The SOFIA mission was extensive and very informative. Teachers were given an opportunity to not only get hands on training but the ability to speak with industry leaders on what to expect in their future work force. Kathryn is bringing the knowledge she gained from this to her students hoping to feed their interest with real-life lessons and the specialized lesson plan provided from the SETI Institute. “Teaching is not necessarily easy but over the years I have found different models to explain things from the different questions students have had. “Over the summer we had to go over a two week-long lesson plan that discusses how we see things over the light spectrum,” she continued. 

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