JAFFREY — After nearly a year and a half of waiting, Susan Rolke is ready for liftoff.
Though, takeoff might be the more accurate term for the 51-year-old science teacher at Conant High School in Jaffrey, who this week is scheduled to embark on a pair of overnight flights on NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a modified 747 equipped with a specialized infrared telescope.
Rolke, a Fitzwilliam resident, is one of 28 educators nationwide selected in February 2020 to participate in the NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program, a professional development experience for high school teachers administered by the SETI Institute, a California-based nonprofit research and education organization. And after the COVID-19 pandemic delayed her flight week from last June, Rolke leaves Monday for Palmdale, Calif., home of SOFIA and NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center Hangar 703.
“I’m super excited,” she said. “... I’ve been following this program for a number of years, and just to be selected was amazing. I was so ecstatic that I was selected out of all these teachers that applied. And now, getting to go and fly on the world’s only flying observatory, it’s just amazing.”
Rolke, who grew up in Keene and holds a bachelor’s degree in math and physics from Keene State College, first learned about the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program in 2014, when she was working at Mascenic Regional High School in New Ipswich. At the time, the opportunity was available only to teachers in California, said Rolke, who also has a master’s in science education from Montana State University and has taught at Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative Middle/High School and Franklin Pierce University in Rindge.
“And in the fall of 2019, I just happened to head over to [the SETI Institute] site to see what was going on with the AAA program,” Rolke said. “And it was just as they were starting up accepting applications for Cycle 8. And so it was just a serendipity moment of, I came to the site and I saw that their qualifications had changed and that I could apply.”
Rolke was the only Granite State teacher selected for the program, which started in 2011 and seeks “to improve science teaching and increase student learning and STEM engagement,” according to a news release from the SETI Institute. In addition to the weeklong research trip to California, teachers in the AAA program receive training on a two-week curriculum developed by NASA to bring back to their schools.
“Typically, you teach it after you go, but because of the flight being suspended, we went ahead and we had a workshop [held virtually last summer],” Rolke said. “We learned about how to teach the curriculum and we experienced the activities firsthand so that we could understand what the students would be seeing and thinking when they did it.”
She offered the unit on the electromagnetic spectrum, using examples from SOFIA, last November in her physics and chemistry classes at Conant, where she has taught for three years. The lesson, she said, started with hands-on experiments with different-colored lights, and colors invisible to the human eye, like infrared light.
“So when we started the activities in this unit, it was really great because we were in person at this time. So, my kids were having a great time exploring,” Rolke said. “... And then, unfortunately, we went remote. And we continued with our exploration, but it was harder.”
Even with the switch to remote learning — prompted by a spike in COVID-19 cases in the Jaffrey-Rindge district — in the middle of Rolke’s NASA-developed unit, she said her students still told her it was one of their favorite lessons of the year. And with her flight week finally here, Rolke said she hopes the AAA program provides her with even more knowledge to bring back to Conant.
During the flights on SOFIA — which flies at 35,000 to 45,000 feet, several thousand feet higher than commercial aircraft, to get above 99 percent of Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere and do research not possible with ground-based telescopes, according to NASA — Rolke and her fellow Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors will work with NASA researchers to help collect data for various projects.
“So, [it’s] just a really immersive experience, to be able to work with those subject matter experts so we can bring that information back into our classroom to share with our students and get them excited,” Rolke said.
She added that she is most looking forward to the opportunity to work alongside the NASA researchers.
“It’s one thing to read a research paper or a magazine, and you see part of it,” Rolke said. “You see their end result and you don’t see the whole process. When you get to meet the researchers, the people working on the project, you get to talk to them, you really get to understand it behind the scenes of everything that happens.”
This level of engagement with experts will, in turn, provide valuable opportunities for Conant students, Principal David Dustin said.
“We couldn’t be more proud of Ms. Rolke,” he said. “... Her flight stands as an inspiration to the school community, and especially to learners aspiring to careers in STEM fields, and we’re very excited to see how her experience translates into new opportunities to engage and instruct our learners.”
When Rolke flies on SOFIA, which she’s scheduled to do Tuesday and Thursday nights, she’ll be wearing a blue NASA flight suit adorned with a mission patch that she designed herself. The patch, the first ever for a AAA flight week, was chosen after a competition among the teachers selected to participate and their students, Rolke said.
The patch for AAA Cycle 8, the eighth group of teachers chosen for the program, depicts light passing through a prism. To depict infrared light, Rolke used 28 small white dots — one for each of the participants — representing photons. Around the border of the patch, she included abbreviations for the 13 states represented in the group of teachers.
The spectrum of colors on the patch, Rolke said, harkens back to the discovery of infrared light in 1800, when British astronomer William Herschel used a prism and thermometers to discover the invisible radiation.
“And the other thing is that I was also staring at my poster of The Dark Side of the Moon from Pink Floyd that was hanging in the back of my classroom,” she said with a laugh.
Since last March, Rolke has been blogging about her experience with the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program, and sharing some astronomy lessons. She plans to update the blog regularly, if not daily, this week. To read more about her experience, visit www.rolkesofia.wordpress.com.