While most people were sleeping, a Center Grove Middle School North science teacher was soaring 40,000 feet above the ground in a one-of-a-kind aircraft.
Jeff Peterson was picked as one of two teachers from Indiana to spend a week with NASA scientists and engineers. Peterson and Troy Cockrum, a director of innovated teaching in Indianapolis, flew to California to fly in the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA.
For two nights, Peterson and Cockrum flew into the stratosphere in a modified Boeing 747 plane. The aircraft had been transformed into a NASA aircraft by removing the passenger seats, and installing a 100-inch diameter telescope to view stars, planets and black holes in the universe.
They were able to study the atmospheric pressure and temperatures while rising into the stratosphere, and Peterson plans to use that experience to teach his students about the different layers of the atmosphere.
Since 2010, NASA has chosen teachers to participate in the program, where they can conduct experiments from a modified plane and fly higher than in a commercial flight. Peterson and Cockrum were the first teachers from Indiana picked for the SOFIA program. The SOFIA aircraft travels as high as 40,000 feet in the air, compared to about 32,000 feet on commercial flights, so scientists have clearer photos.
The flights take place at night, since the telescope uses infrared technology and works better in the dark, Peterson said. In order to get the best photographs and more accurate measurements, the aircraft takes off around 6 p.m. and lands at 2 a.m., Peterson said.
In order to be picked for the program, Peterson and Cockrum had to plan specific experiments they could do while in SOFIA.
Last year, Peterson started a new tradition with his students of flying a weather balloon up to 20 miles into the air to study atmospheric pressure, wind speeds and temperature. The balloon carries a small box of weather-measuring tools into the air, and the students can track the data while the balloon climbs into the stratosphere.
By flying with SOFIA, Peterson was reaching the same altitude as the weather balloon during its peak height, he said.
“So the connection is that I was able to fly a similar flight plan that the balloon would fly, and take measurements as we moved through the layers of the atmosphere,” Peterson said.
Peterson plans on using the data he collected on SOFIA with his weather balloon data in the future to help students learn the difference between the troposphere, or ground level, and the stratosphere, he said.
But Peterson was able to take away another aspect of his NASA trip to the classroom: How SOFIA engineers and scientists solved problems.
Students need to learn problem-solving skills, such as studying the data they have in front of them, asking what other information is needed in order to answer their questions and break down each aspect of a problem to solve it, Peterson said.
The SOFIA engineers and scientists provided a specific example of how problem-solving is needed, he said. The experts could take a problem, analyze it, test smaller ideas for how to solve the problem and reflect on what they gleaned from the tests, he said.
“The coordination of this program was really something to behold,” Peterson said.