Conant teacher is chosen for select NASA program

  • Susan Rolke, a chemistry and physics teacher at Conant, was selected as one of 28 teachers from 13 states chosen for the 2020 NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin

  • Susan Rolke, a chemistry and physics teacher at Conant, was selected as one of 28 teachers from 13 states chosen for the 2020 NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin

  • Susan Rolke, a chemistry and physics teacher at Conant, was selected as one of 28 teachers from 13 states chosen for the 2020 NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 3/8/2020 3:56:49 PM

The idea of a 10 to 12 hours flight is enough to cause most people to hesitate to get on an airplane. But not Conant teacher Susan Rolke.

That’s because Rolke isn’t heading halfway around the world this June on a trip filled with layovers and airport security. Rather the chemistry and physics instructor at the Jaffrey high school is one of 28 teachers selected from around the country who will have the opportunity to take a journey on SOFIA, which stands for Stratographic Observatory For Infrared Astronomy, through the Airborne Astronomy Ambassador program. The teachers are selected from a large group of applicants by the SETI Institute.

The Airborne Astronomy Ambassador program, which is funded by NASA, allows educators to observe researchers aboard SOFIA, who collect information from the night sky in infrared as opposed to visible light through the use of a 100-inch telescope. SOFIA is also funded by NASA, but is a separate program that allows the Airborne Astronomy Ambassador program to ride along.

“It’s the only flying observatory,” Rolke said. “And other than having a telescope in space, there’s no other way to observe infrared astronomy except for SOFIA.”

Rolke is guaranteed at least one trip aboard SOFIA during her week-long trip to Palmdale, California in June, but she is hopeful for two. The specially created plane – a modified 747 – flies in the stratosphere to get above 99 percent of the water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere, operating between 36,000 to 45,000 feet.

During flight week, Rolke will go through pre- and post-flight training, meetings associated with the flights, and meetings regarding the research being conducted. She will also have to adjust her sleep schedule to get accustomed to staying up late because the flights are overnight.

“It’s a really long night I’ve heard,” Rolke said.

The chance to ride on SOFIA and discuss research and results with the mission director and regular members who operate the telescope is exciting to say the least.

“That’s probably the most incredible part of the trip,” Rolke said. “To sit down and talk to the people who are doing this incredible research.”

But for Rolke, being the only teacher from New Hampshire selected for the Airborne Astronomy Ambassador program is nice, but its the opportunity affords her students is what makes the program even more special.

In addition to the flight week and online classes, she will take part in separate workshops to learn a two-week physical science curriculum module created by the SETI Institute that focuses on the electromagnetic spectrum using previous SOFIA research examples as illustrations.

“We will be playing the part of the students and work through the materials,” Rolke said.

She plans to introduce the curriculum to her students this fall.

“It’s an amazing once in a lifetime experience to be part of this. However, as a teacher, I want to get my students excited about science. I hope to do this by sharing with them my enthusiasm and experience. It is not every day that someone has the opportunity to fly on a plane with a 100-inch telescope and talk with researchers and people that work for NASA,” Rolke said.

This is the first time Rolke applied for the program but heard about it a handful of years ago and it was only due to changes in the criteria for applicants that she decided to apply. She approached the school district and Conant Principal Brett Blanchard about the program and was met with a resounding yes.

“For me, it’s exactly what I want,” Blanchard said. “I’m a firm believer in practicing what you preach.”

Blanchard said he sees real value in a program like Airborne Astronomy Ambassador.

“Generally education is done in isolation, but the best education is connected to the greater world,” he said.

And the fact that one of his teachers was chosen from a large pool of applicants shows how incredible an opportunity Rolke has in front of her.

“There are roughly 20,000 public high schools in the country, so that’s a pretty select group,” Blanchard said. “People don’t realize some of the effort these teachers put into enhancing student learning.”

As a physics and chemistry teacher, Rolke is passionate about the sciences. It started her senior year of high school with a pair of teachers that “were so transformational.” She always had an interest in astronomy and her physics teacher helped foster that passion. She was particularly struck by the fact that everything falls at the same rate on the surface of the moon, regardless of its size and weight. Rolke, who owns an 8-inch reflector telescope and is a member of the Southern Vermont Astronomy Group, enjoys nothing more than sharing her knowledge of space.

“It’s amazing to have that opportunity to see the rings of Saturn or the bands of Jupiter,” Rolke said.




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