Teacher accepted into NASA program

Bob MacArthur named Airborne Astronomy Ambassador

Jessica Gibbs
jgibbs@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 3/9/20

A Douglas County teacher is one of 28 teachers nationally and the only in Colorado selected to fly in a special NASA plane fitted with a one-of-a-kind telescope for astronomy research and science …

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Teacher accepted into NASA program

Bob MacArthur named Airborne Astronomy Ambassador

Posted

A Douglas County teacher is one of 28 teachers nationally and the only in Colorado selected to fly in a special NASA plane fitted with a one-of-a-kind telescope for astronomy research and science curriculum development.

Bob MacArthur will participate in the 2020 NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors (AAA) program. The program's 28 teachers from 13 states will undergo a week of training at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center Hangar 703 in Palmdale, California.

As part of the program, teachers will participate in research flights on NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA. The Boeing 747 is modified to carry a 100-inch telescope and studies infrared light. At the end of the week, teachers help develop a physical science curriculum with the SETI Institute and teach it in their schools for two weeks.

Ahead of his trip, here's five things to know about MacArthur and what his participation in the program will mean for Douglas County.

Who is Bob MacArthur?

Bob MacArthur is an 11-year Highlands Ranch High School science teacher and 15-year Douglas County School District teaching veteran. He's been in teaching for 18 years total. MacArthur teaches ninth through 12th grade and covers subjects ranging from geology to meteorology to earth science.

His reaction to making the program

MacArthur applied for the program in mid-November. In mid-December, he was at home cooking dinner when his assistant principal sent him a text message: “Check your email,” she said.

“And there it was,” MacArthur recalled — a letter saying he was accepted into the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program. Excitedly, he called his wife over. “She like freaked out with me.”

“I was shocked, to be honest,” he said.

MacArthur then had to keep the big news confidential until the official announcement on Feb. 26.

His love for astronomy began in childhood

MacArthur studied earth science and secondary education at Northern Arizona University. There, he also worked at Lowell Observatory, whose “claim to fame,” he said, was discovering Pluto. He first learned about SOFIA from astronomers at Lowell Observatory who also worked on the plane.

But his love for studying how the universe works began in childhood.

“My dad and grandfather were big into astronomy. We had telescopes, I was probably like a baby and my dad stuck me up to a telescope,” MacArthur said with a laugh. “But I remember looking through my dad's telescope at Halley's Comet in 1986. We'd have summer barbecues and we'd get the telescope out. Meteorology and astronomy have always been a big passion of mine.”

MacArthur now has five telescopes of his own and shares his love for astronomy with his four children, just like his dad did with him, he said.

“We go out observing and have fun nerding out,” he said.

What teachers will learn in AAA

The 28 teachers are already meeting and working together through online webchats and courses. They are learning about the SETI Institute, the AAA program and taking an online astronomy course, MacArthur said.

This spring, when they spend a week in California, they're promised at least one flight on SOFIA.

“We'll take off at sunset and we'll be up all night, flying at 43,000 feet in the stratosphere doing infrared astronomy,” MacArthur said. “A typical flight could be five to eight hours.”

Flying at that altitude is imperative for infrared research, he said, because water vapor below that blocks out 90% of infrared waves, which can't be seen with the human eye the way colors in a rainbow can.

“SOFIA itself, because it looks at wavelengths of light, looks at everything from studying planetary atmospheres, to studying dust clouds around stars and how solar systems form to star formations and nebulas, all the way to dust around galaxies and star forming centers, galaxy formation, and things like that,” he said. “So, it looks at a lot.”

How his experience will help Douglas County students

MacArthur said a huge part of his teaching philosophy is rooted in experiential learning. He completed a master's program in experiential learning that allowed him to travel and bring those experiences back to the classroom, and he expects to have the same ability after flying on SOFIA.

“I actually take students on trips to Hawaii, Iceland, I'm all about getting my students to experience the science that I'm teaching,” he said. “Whether I can take them there to see the auroras in Iceland or Hawaii and the volcanos and the observatories, or myself having that experience, like with SOFIA and the Airborne Ambassador program, I can bring that experience to them.”

The curriculum developed through the program will fit in with state standards and help students understand more about the universe, he said.

“By learning more about infrared astronomy, it allows us to teach our student more about galaxy formation, planet formation, things like that,” he said.

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