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Educators Take to the Sky to Inspire their Classrooms

SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) embarked on an effort to initiate the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors (AAA) in May 2011. The AAA has generated substantial public interest and has helped emphasize to the press that SOFIA truly is a working Observatory. SOFIA's Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program is a yearly professional development opportunity extended to educators through a competitive, peer-reviewed process.

As of September 2015, the AAA program has a cohort of 84 educators from 29 states enabling participation in the NASA astronomy mission by a wide distribution of teachers, who bring back their experience to the classrooms or museums of their day jobs. It is estimated that 10,000 students have been reached to date through the AAA program. The educators are teamed in pairs and fly twice on SOFIA, sitting at the dedicated Education and Public Outreach console on-board the aircraft and listening to and witnessing communications between pilots, mission directors, telescope operators, instrument scientists, and guest investigators.

John Grunsfeld and Kathleen Fredette

Image: Kathleen Fredette, AAA, with NASA Associate Administrator, John Grunsfeld, aboard SOFIA. Fredette was the 2015 recipient of the Women in Aerospace 30th Anniversary Commemorative Award for her exceptional ability to impact young women's lives and encourage pursuit of further education. Awards were presented on October 22, 2015.

On October 22, 2015, Kathleen Fredette, one of the first SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors, received an award from WIA: "Women in Aerospace 30th Anniversary Commemorative Award: Kathleen Fredette, iLEAD Schools, Palmdale, Calif., for her exceptional ability to impact girls and young women's lives as they catch a spark, ignite their learning, and decide to stay in school." She talked about SOFIA, when receiving the award, which her students call a "tricked-out plane."

On September 15, 2015, five educators participating in the AAA program flew with Nichelle Nichols, actress, cultural icon, and science advocate. Playing Lt. Uhura on Star Trek, the first major African American female role on TV, Nichols used her role to recruit women and underserved candidates for NASA and science careers. Nichols continued this commitment as she flew on SOFIA, answered questions through social media during her pre-flight training as well as the flight itself, sharing the experience and what she was learning with her worldwide followers.

Nichelle Nichols and 2015 Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors

Image: Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols and Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors pose in front of the observatory telescope during their pre-flight safety training on September 14. Front from left: Susan Oltman, Michael Shinabery, Jeffrey Killebrew, Nichelle Nichols, April Whitt and Jo Dodds. Back: Ivor Dawson. Credit: NASA/Carla S. Thomas.