Astronomy department’s outreach program sends teachers to stratosphere

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UT’s astronomy department successfully flew Texas teachers to the stratosphere as part of an outreach program called the EXES Teacher Associate Program.
Photo Credit: Xintong Guo | Daily Texan Staff

After 17 years of development, UT’s astronomy department successfully flew Texas teachers to the stratosphere as part of an outreach program called the EXES Teacher Associate Program.

In 1997, the Universities Space Research Association awarded a grant to the astronomy department to construct a space-based telescope called the Echelon-Cross-Echelle Spectrograph, or EXES. The EXES was designed for NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, better known as the SOFIA, the largest flying astronomical observatory in the world.

The EXES Teacher Associate Program gave a variety of Texas teachers a firsthand glimpse into the development of the EXES so the teachers could relay information about the EXES to their own students. UT research associate Keely Finkelstein was one of the 10 teachers who boarded the SOFIA.

On the SOFIA, the teachers used the EXES instrument to observe evolved stars and certain molecules that had not previously been visible with the clarity and precision EXES provides, Finkelstein said.

“EXES takes very detailed, exquisite spectra of objects at midinfrared wavelengths,” Finkelstein said. “This work can’t be done from the ground — light at these wavelengths gets absorbed by our atmosphere before reaching the ground.” 

Mechanical engineering freshman Calvin Wong believes the EXES Teacher Associate Program should be replicated by other professors in different fields.

“When I was a high school student, I would have loved to learn about developments in mechanical engineering, like the design of bridges, from my physics professor,” Wong said. “Programs like these influence students to follow certain academic paths in their lives.” 

However, the program has faced criticism, even from within.    

John Lacy, astronomy professor and the initial lead scientist for EXES, dropped out of the EXES project in 2009 because he didn’t believe that the astronomical benefits of SOFIA outweighed the environmental costs.

“Each flight of the airline observatory will use as much aviation fuel as a round-trip flight across the country for 400 people,” Lacy said. “I didn’t think I could continue to try to convince the students in my classes to cut their carbon footprints if I was working on a project that would have much more of an impact than any of them would have.” 

Finkelstein said the experience on the SOFIA as rewarding because many of the teachers have been involved with the EXES Teacher Associate Program for more than 15 years.

“It was also great to be able to share this experience with a group of Texas teachers that have been dedicated astronomy teachers and learners themselves for many years,” Finkelstein said.