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Draper Journal

High school science teacher to be amongst stars on NASA trip

Apr 05, 2021 11:08AM ● By Julie Slama

Corner Canyon High science teacher Milo Maughan, second from right, who is helping his physics students investigate the acceleration of gravity as in an experiment, will board NASA’s SOFIA this fall to observe and interact with scientists and mission crew members. (Photo courtesy of Milo Maughan/Corner Canyon High School)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Through a NASA outreach program, Corner Canyon High science teacher Milo Maughan will be amongst the stars rather than just looking at them through his telescope.

Maughan was selected as an Airborne Astronomy Ambassador, which will allow him to board a flight into the stratosphere on NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a Boeing 747SP aircraft modified to carry a 106-inch diameter telescope. 

Once aboard the world’s largest flying observatory, he will be able to observe and interact with scientists and mission crew members. 

The 10-hour flight is dependent upon COVID-19 restrictions, but it is tentatively scheduled for fall 2021. 

“I knew it was pretty competitive, so I thought I’d just throw my hat in,” he said about his early January application. 

Later that month, Maughan had an email saying he was accepted and that an announcement would follow, which it did on Feb. 25.

“I just thought ‘wow, this is exciting,’ when I read the email,” he said, but knew outside of his family, he wasn’t able to discuss the opportunity.

It just isn’t the mission, but a program designed to improve science teaching and increase student learning and STEM engagement. 

Through monthly webinars, asynchronous content learning and hands-on curriculum workshops, Maughan will learn curriculum and gain equipment that he can incorporate into his astronomy and physics classes where he typically teaches 150 students per year. The first webinar was scheduled for mid-March.

“It’s going to be an amazing impact for especially my astronomy kids. I’ll be able to tell them about SOFIA’s activities and it will be more meaningful as I can share with them my experience,” he said, adding that he hopes that he will be able to connect students with the scientists as guest speakers.

Maughan will be joined by 29 other educators, from middle and high schools as well as community colleges in 10 states, including nearby Hillcrest High science teacher Clief Castleton.

To qualify to be an ambassador, educators must have taught at least three years and have experience teaching physical science, earth and space science, astronomy, astrobiology, or integrated science. They also must be scheduled to lead physics and astronomy classes the year they are ambassadors. 

The two learned about the opportunity from Canyons School District’s Instructional Supports Teacher Specialist Leslie Allen, who let all middle and high school science teachers know about this program through their AAA partnership with the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute. SETI houses the NASA-funded ambassador program, which was created to bolster U.S. student interest and achievement in STEM. 

SETI is located in Silicon Valley close to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center Hangar 703 in Palmdale, California, where ambassadors will go through their intense week-long on-site training before their trip on SOFIA. 

SOFIA, a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, is maintained and operated from NASA’s fight center in California. NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley manages the program, science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association in Columbia, Maryland.

Maughan said he has had a passion for astronomy since he was young. Even though he loved “Star Trek” as well as science fiction and space movies and documentaries, it was on a space simulator field trip where he and his classmates were immersed on a mission when he was a Draper Elementary sixth-grader that cemented his passion.

“We went to Christa McAuliffe Space Center (in Utah County) and it sealed the deal for me,” Maughan said. “I’ve always had the passion to learn more, to understand more—and to space travel.”

His passion of astronomy and love of teaching intertwined when he was a Boy Scout camp counselor, teaching merit badges. Astronomy was the third badge he taught, behind oceanography and geography. 

“In some way, shape or form, I’ve always been teaching,” Maughan said.

Maughan has held star parties for his astronomy students, even during the pandemic, following safety and health guidelines. For some students, it might be the first time they’ve looked through the telescope.

“They say, ‘That’s the moon? Wow, look at those craters!’ It’s just so much fun to watch kids see what’s up there and just be in awe,” he said.

Maughan has traveled out of the city lights with his 8-inch reflector telescope out to photograph Jupiter and Saturn when they were close together in early winter or last summer to see the Comet NEOWISE.

Now, once aboard SOFIA, he will be able to see images from the massive reflecting telescope used to detect light sources from the depths of space.   

“I’m excited to see the images that the infrared telescope gets so we can look on the screen to understand and analyze those,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to travel among the stars.”