Jennifer Muir didn’t know that her lifelong aspirations to become a teacher would eventually take her to the edge of space.
“I wasn’t set on science till I started going to college,” said Muir, a science teacher at Draper Park Middle School. “I took a geology class for my physical science requirement and absolutely loved it and majored in earth science education — best decision I’ve ever made.”
Muir was selected in December to attend a prestigious NASA-affiliated teacher training program that includes a trip to the stratosphere aboard the world’s largest flying observatory, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA.
She learned about the program last year after Canyons School District teachers Milo Maughan, who now works at the Utah State Office of Education, and Hillcrest’s Clief Castleton received their flight jackets from NASA.
“I didn’t think it was open to middle school science teachers, so when I found out it was through our district science specialist, I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to apply because the worst they can tell me is no,’” Muir said.
Except they didn’t say no and Muir joined a list of 24 other teachers across the nation who will be embarking on the journey with her as airborne astronomy ambassadors. She is the only teacher from the Beehive State in this year’s program.
The group includes K-12 teachers and community college instructors from across the country.
Qualifications to become an ambassador include at least three years of teaching experience in such subjects as physical science, earth and space science, astronomy, astrobiology or integrated science. Teachers also must be scheduled to lead physics and astronomy in the coming years.
Muir was at IKEA when she found out she had been selected.
“I was freaking out,” she said. “I was pulling up the confirmation email for the (IKEA) pickup and that’s when I saw the email that I’d been selected.”
While many have assumed that Muir will be going all the way to space, she is quick to dispel this notion (she is a science teacher, after all).
“It’s a Boeing 747 called SOFIA. It flies in the stratosphere so it goes higher than regular planes but it’s not actually going to space,” Muir said.
Still, the opportunity is once in a lifetime.
“It’s going to be amazing because it’s got a huge telescope on it and you fly at night and you’re flying with these amazing research scientists,” Muir said. “The telescope opens up and you get to be there while live data comes in.”
Muir said she doesn’t know exactly what her role will be while on board quite yet, but acknowledged that she will “help with whatever they need help with.”
Aside from her upcoming journey being an incredible individual experience, Muir is eager to take what she learns aboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy and bring it back to her middle school students.
“In eighth grade science, we learn about light and sound and especially the electromagnetic spectrum. So teaching the kids that not all light is visible with the human eye,” Muir said. “This telescope actually uses infrared or thermal energy to collect pictures and data, so I’ll get to show them some of the discoveries made using other wavelengths of light besides just the visible light that the human eye can see.”
Ambassadors also are given curriculum and equipment to bolster the classroom experience after they return from a weeklong immersive training.
She said that she hopes her experience and teaching style will influence some students into a STEM career.
“Obviously I’m happy with whatever they choose as a career, but if they choose STEM, it makes me happy,” she said. “The fact that I get this opportunity, to me, is a huge thank you for doing my job and doing my job well.”
Muir leaves for her five-day trip on Monday, and while most people would understandably have some jitters leading up to a trip of this magnitude, Muir is ready to go.
“I’m not really one to say no if I have an opportunity to do something,” Muir said. “I wouldn’t say I’m nervous, I’m excited to take back what I learn to my students but I’m also just excited to have the experience.”