Science in the Middle

doing 6th grade science – outside the box!

Neuroplasticity in schools: Buzzword or brilliance?

In July, several teachers from Mount Vernon Presbyterian School had the honor to attend the CTTL Academy at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland.  In the week, we had many varied experiences from the discomfort of dissecting a brain (!) to designing an action research project to take back to our schools. Brains are not fixed – they are an information processing center that can grow and provide new neural pathways to deeper learning with purposeful emphasis.


A sheep’s brain helped us better understand the anatomy of a brain


The conference was the inaugural gathering and included many of the most innovative schools in the United States as well as across the globe. In whole group sessions, small group challenges, breakout discussions, deep dives into choice topics, and visits with Johns Hopkins education researchers, we broke down the process of learning to it’s building blocks within the brain to better understand and reach those we learn with in our classrooms.


Researchers demonstrate the activity in the brain by modeling the type of research they do at Johns Hopkins.


This “toy” from the 80’s actually works the way an EEG does! However, I think I will lobby to purchase the $100 EEG cap!

The staff of SAES, presenters and facilitators did an outstanding job with logistics,  hospitality and planning! I believe that Neuroplasticity is not simply a flavor of the week buzzword in education. When we teach students how their brain works, they will recognize growth in learning – the journey, not just the grade – something we ALL are hoping for!

I am eager to put to work this year some of the key takeaways and watch my students grow as they never have before!  Below are my notes from the conference.


Here are just some of the many research questions we pondered throughout the week.

MBE Power Strategies

Mind-Brain-Education seems like a redundant phrase, for who is not using their brain during the process of education and learning?  The clear takeaway is that we must impart what the research says to answer the question How do we learn? – to the very minds in our care each day.

Neuroplasticity shows us that we can change our brains through practice. We can build new neural pathways. Build Metacognition: Thinking about thinking.

Through a simple participation exercise, demonstrated in 4 similar ways by different researchers, we learn that the brain transfers information that has MEANING to long term memory. All other new material, or even re-exposure to familiar material, is relegated to be forgotten.

Teach and assess in multiple modalities:

Spacing and interleaving has much better outcomes for long term learning. This is opposed to learning in “blocks” and being assessed on blocked information.

What we can expect is struggle during the formative assessments but higher levels of master when the summative assessments are given.

The best example given was in math – practice and tests should be given with types of problems mixed up, this way, the student must determine the strategy to be applied, and not just follow the ”rote” formula for that problem set.

As far as the format assessments go, they should be frequent for low stakes or no-stakes to reduce anxiety. (Some ideas were kicked around such as letting the student choose whether or not to count a small quiz, or let the choose a certain number to count.)

Move beyond lecture:

Direct teaching has its place.

Solo work helps ss focus, allows tailored work, and individual support

Try 10 things that are true or false about ——- to engage and evaluate prior knowledge

Lecture build a common foundation from which all will learn – where will it go from there? Follow up with an immediate opportunity to USE the content.

Try “buying” lecture time – I need your focus for 10 minutes –

“sketch it” after a lecture

Connect Class to students’ daily lives

Noted that there is very little research about whether empathy improves motivation

Incorporate the idea of justice, but make SURE it is taught as more than a black or white dichotomy, there is room for many ideas along the continuum

Acknowledge SS limited working memory

We way overestimate students working memory . Need to fully dissect an activity before the kids do it – they may not be able to “get it” without scaffolds

Think about the barriers that will hinder student performance and how you will eliminate them. Plan scaffolds and how you will peel them back way in advance.

Our goal is that students will develop and call on strategies.

Mnemonic, models, good examples to help limited working memory

Include choice and play – make it fun!

Team games, individual competitions, breakouts, google dance your phd, for advisory, Factitious – for real or fake news, learn to evaluate sources.

*** Aid Memory – the Spacing and Interleaving Effect ***    

Getting what we teach to stick better

Blocking vs. interleaving

spacing has the most supportive research. Teach how to space out studying and practice.

Study on taxi cab drivers in England – Blocking is like being on cruise control, you don’t have to think a lot. Interleaving is like stop and go traffic  – you have to always be ready.

Research _ the interleaving group did worse at practice but better on overall test. The more times you walk the better you can find the path again. The brain builds strong connections over multiple times practicing, thinking about how the problems differ. Practicing multiple skills together the brain gets better at figuring out which type of problem it is and how to attack it.

Discussion : how is this similar and different to spiraling content?

Aid Memory – Formative Assessment and the Testing Effect

Students overestimate how well they know content

Frequent testing and self-testing words. RE-reading does not!

Spend time on the process of self testing.

After giving a formative assessment, tell students what you are going to do next based on the results. Ss should self-track where they are with content knowledge

Even kahoot, quizlet, quia, go formative all count as practice testing!

Give Feedback that works

Specific – timely – process focused -( mastery oriented)

Feedback should always lead to action, otherwise, why give it? Students should give self error analysis.

Try this – 1:1 mini conference with students along the way with feedback. (After you have established a good relationship and a safe classroom climate.) DO NOT give grade – based on the feedback I gave you, what grade do you think you earned?

Teach HOW to give feedback and how to receive it.

Keep feedback iterative – give it piece by piece. Not a whole long overwhelming list.

Break the mindset that you give them something, they fix it, then they get the A (grade effort and growth)

Student stories –

A dozen or so middle and high school students, as well as recent graduates, gave brief presentations to small groups about their learning journey. Here are some takeaways from the 3 I talked to – rising 7th, 9th and senior.

They loved…, enthusiastic teachers, caring teachers, when Ts spent time on a relationship and getting to know them, grace, Knowing when other emotional stuff is going on in their life. re-enactments, group projects, hands on, feedback, having space to ask questions, and balance of fun and strict (keeping order). Relevant projects,

Disliked:  Being treated like a little kid, teachers who did not deal justly with misbehavior (allowed disruptions), class being punished for actions of one, when T does the same thing every time. Meaningless HW or lots of HW, irrelevant work. Mean teachers, too strict makes it an environment where you feel you can’t ask questions. Dislike group grades.

They had difficulties with time management and switching schools was also hard.

Build a relationship and safe classroom environment by sharing stories about yourself. Builds understanding and connection.

Use humor and banter. don’t have every interaction be about their work!

Build Metacognition

We need to be teaching kids how their brain works. An EEG cap can demonstrate the recording of brain waves. Brains are changeable. Ts need to model metacognition. SAES logo on the shirts was “YET.”  Do the activity that 3 of the researchers did with the educators – words or concepts that have meaning STICK. Turn negativity into YET statements.

Ask students if they had a disconnect with the content or how they interacted with it.

Focus on the strategies that research says REALLY works.

Try this – make a chart of concepts that you have mastered, then list the strategies that led to mastery.

Carol Dweck – how to encourage students

Beyond Growth Mindset

Students attribute their success or failure to 1. Inherited ability 2. Effort 3. Luck 4. Task Difficulty

MOTIVATION is closely related to how they attribute past successes or failures.

If reasons are internal, changeable, and within our control —> motivated

Students with FIXED mindset are not open to feedback. Create a culture of Ss wanting feedback! Ask them often if they want feedback.Help the lightbulb go off on feedback being desirable.

Help ss overcome learned helplessness, get parents on board.

Ask parents to partner with you on praising effort!

Video    Carol Dweck – how a growth mindset leads to higher achievement

Labels on kids imply fixed. Social and personality are also malleable.

Giving back tests: the ones with fixed mindsets look for someone who did worse than them, are not interested in the right answer.

How to help them change?

1.Direct teach: How brain changes in response to experience and practice.

2.Language: Have them explain connects to someone else can indirectly change beliefs. Affirm high standards.

3. Feedback: Give them strategies and remind them to use them! Give descriptive feedback. Allow revisions. Encourage help-seeking and collaboration. Grade them on trying something new. On rubrics, have one section for content and another for resilience. This works for behavior as well as for academics.

TRUST is important.

Make it Stick – a toolkit for students to improve learning and memory

How to remember better? How to retain better?

Force students to do active processing of information. Repetition and re-reading DOESN’T work! Student brains are being misled by familiarity and fluency. These are misleading cues! To Ss, new information learned seems arbitrary – need to build understanding. Have them give reason why, what if statements. Why is a great way to force thinking! Use explain and why questions from the very beginning. Ask, why would a teacher want to know this. Why do scientists classify this way?

—-> Exercise – generate a bunch of man sentences then do it again with Ss making a mental picture of each man. Show them how they need to make a connection to remember.

1. Have Ss prepare to teach someone else – mini writing or drawing – then explain to someone else.

For review, space it out.

Lead Ss to generate better questions, develop Qs to ask themselves during reading. Grade the WHY.  CER – claim evidence reasoning.

2. Space Study and instruction

3. Mix it up!  Interleaving. Blocked practice undermines what we desire – that Ss figure out strategies. Closely related concepts should be taught together so students can figure out similarities / differences

4. Retrieval practice

Feedback and Assessment

There is a feedback continuum – feedback with a grade is 50 % less effective!

Use feedback as scaffolding. Start the year with it one way, change how you give it and to what level. Feedback should be summarized, reduced and delayed by end of year.

EX: Instead of writing in all the periods, give feedback that student needs to work on ending sentences with proper punctuation ONCE, not a bunch of red marks. “Your —— is looking better but you need to work on.”


This group of MVPS learners can attest to the truth of neuroplasticity – we learned plenty of relevant information and strategies during our week of workshops and discussions!

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Pacing to Finish Strong: A Best Last Week

Everyone knows that a runner paces herself so she can finish a race strong. Pacing in teaching to me for the last decade or so has not really worked out that way, mainly because I could not set my own cadence. Pacing was dictated by the county. The all-important dates of standardized testing mandate that all content be taught prior to any tests. Typically, this leaves a month or more of remediation whether needed or not, wasted time, busy work, or movies…or does it?

Every year I’ve tried to incorporate some fun STEM activities in the closing weeks of school that may or may not spiral back to the previously taught units. This year, my partner Missy Doss and I implemented a terrific unit – my best last week* – in my final year at Kittredge Magnet School.

Choosing a strand was easy: Space. It’s the student’s overwhelming favorite compared with our other units, perhaps ingrained due to the 3 day trip we take to Space Camp in Huntsville. I used many existing and classic resources and adapted them to a Mars theme, since the next great goal set for the Space Program is Mars 2020.  

The first activity we chose was a 3 day design challenge for the Egg Drop – building a container to protect an egg when dropped from a height. This was not the first time my students have done the egg drop, but it is the first time I have strung several activities together with the cohesive Mars theme. The students designed a Mars Capsule to protect their astronaut (egg) from damage when landing on Mars. There was an inventory of resources and students could only use a certain amount of materials. Choices included water bottles, cardboard, string, plastic, tape, and more. (I’ve learned in previous years that bubble wrap is not a good choice, so this year, we did not use it.)

To begin, we watched the amazing engineering JPL video Seven Minutes of Terror to get students’ brains engaged and thinking.


They worked in teams of two or three, choosing materials (without actually having them yet), making a sketch, and naming their space craft with a acronym.  The design phase the day before allowed me to inventory that I had enough of each material on hand, as I had them tally as a class how many of each item was needed. Fortunately, I only needed to gather a few more empty water bottles!  I kept a google doc for names projected so everyone could see the team names. Here is mine from this year.

UVOI0403The second day, all materials were set up at the “Phobos Shopping Mall.” This can be seen in my slide presentation. Groups built their models for the remainder of the hour with everything except their egg. Rovers had to have a way to get the egg inside, so this was a design challenge, too. This took the full class period. Students entered the mass of their lander in the google doc as lightest successful mission was one of the awards.

IMG_2696On Day 3, we had about 10 minutes of prep before we went outside for the drop on Mars!  Needed: ladder, basket and rope, a hula hoop for a target as well as red butcher paper underneath. A few things made this orderly, fun and successful for two classes outdoors at a time:

The only one allowed on the roof of the school was me.  A basket and rope allowed students to place their lander and I would reel it up to the roof.

We had a seating area – we have three legged fold up stools, and seated students are more focused and on task outdoors. It was important to pay attention because there was voting for several project awards within each class!

Eggs were not kept after a successful landing – they were given back to the teachers, and we had a large trash can outside for any unsuccessful and messy landings!IMG_2727

When we went inside afterwards, the reflection was written and papers collected.Students sure learned a lot from seeing other designs and watching many other landers be dropped.

The next problem solving challenge we embarked on took place in a larger group of 6 to 7 students. Adapting from a NASA lesson on surviving on the moon, and @lorigreentx presentation, students had to choose the most important items to take with them from place to place on Mars. My resources are all below.

I produced a short summary video in which you can see the discussion among students to select their materials on Mars.  I made three color copies of each item and laminated them to pass out in groups. Click here or see below to see the video, made on my phone in iMovie.

For the next couple of days, we had a choice, making water filtration designs and testing them, adapting several resources from NASA: here and one from Northwestern University here, or viewing the movie The Martian to compare what the main character, Mark Watney, actually uses compared with their choices from the previous day. SInce I had the movie, the obstacles were parental permission and the movie rating. You can see the rating on The Martian from Common Sense Media. Personally, I thought the movie was fantastic, and I polled the students to learn that only a few had seen it. I get that – going to the movies is expensive!

After the movie, we had a Lego play day – building Rovers! All could participate in “groups” of 3,2 or 1 and thanks to my former teaching partner, we have a huge chest of lego bricks to go around.

So, I did end up with a movie in my last week plus, but no regrets. The students learned a lot, collaborated, and had plenty of hands on and choice. Several students declared The Martian “the best movie ever!” as well. Next year, however, I am determined to incorporate that water filtration challenge!


Click here to access my student sheet for the Mars Egg Drop and reflection. Click here to access my Google Slides presentation to introduce the unit, first inspired by a Twitter colleague @lorigreentx from #scitlap – I adapted her presentation, which is found here..

*week was more like a week and a half.

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The yearbook: a feedback tool

For the last several years I have purchased the school yearbook to remember the incredible kids I teach and have it as a keepsake to look back on in later years when they are all grown up. Last year, however, I realized that it is also a great tool for reflection on how my year of teaching science and building relationships has gone. Truth be told, it is more about the relationships, and a lot is revealed to you in children’s notes.

No 11 or 12 year old is going to write a teacher a thank you note of their own volition. I remember that from my own two daughters – as much as they loved a teacher, getting them to write a note was anguish and next to impossible. So sneaky me, I use my yearbook as that tool! The scribbles written (and any others written by parents and kids) are treasures I keep forever in a special file. All teachers keep one. So here’s how I make the most of it.



Recognizing first that kids love signing each others’ yearbooks, I get mine in the mix while they are fresh and new. Girls are more likely to write more and show feelings, so I will always get girls to start. Boys will sometimes just sign their name. If you start with only names, then that is what you will get, with no warm fuzzy notes.

Second, I am a self-proclaimed Sharpie addict. I have dozens, no, probably hundreds of sharpies. The kids love using them because they love Sharpies, too!

As soon as there is a critical mass of notes, it becomes “cool” to sign Mrs. Oltman’s yearbook. I think I am the only one doing this – at least among the colleagues I asked.

Some of the treasures include “you know how to get the class to learn a lot while still having a lot of fun,” “I loved all of your experiments and I will miss you,” “You have pushed me to be a better student,” “I totally understand why your class was voted least likely to fall asleep in.” Then there are cell phone numbers and email addresses for me to keep in touch, which I will use!

It’s not my only feedback tool, to be sure. But now, for 2016, the yearbook is a gift for myself that keeps on giving.


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How geology came alive for me

In spring of 2008, sitting at the campfire circle at Jekyll Island 4H Center, the news was delivered to me, all of my 5th grade students and my fellow teachers. “Next year, Mrs. Oltman will not be a 5th grade science teacher anymore,” stated my colleague Ann. Stunned silence, then noises of pre-teen disapproval. “She will be a 6th grade science teacher at Kittredge!” Cheers! Applause! Hugs!  My students were happy to have the opportunity to have Mrs. Oltman again for science!

As good as that made me feel, I was apprehensive, and not sold on the idea myself. I enjoyed 10 year olds! I loved guiding students in building jello cells, dissecting frogs, and constructing electric circuits! But now – rocks? Space? Nothing living! It wasn’t my idea, but now it was official, that’s where I was needed.

In August, my teaching partner shared his expertise unselfishly, and answered my endless questions. Formal lesson plans lacking, I delved into the rock kits, determined to master them, even if I didn’t love them. Inanimate rocks. How would I make them fun? Fun was my hallmark! Students enjoyed coming to science, and this would continue – it was a non-negotiable for me.

A national parks fan, I planned our summer trip that year to visit the Grand Canyon and Zion. At the end of June, my husband and I flew out west and began our adventure. One of the first tours we did was “Canyon Dave’s Geology Tour.” In a small group along the South Rim, we learned the history of the beautiful layers revealed by the Colorado River cutting through northern Arizona. The rocks talk – they tell a story! And a beautiful story it was.

Over the next days, our journey continued through the Vermillion Cliffs, the Petrified Forest, and the shockingly deserted North Rim. I could feel the glory of God in all of this – when drenched in the natural world, I feel an intense closeness to our Creator. We rafted in Glen Canyon and around Horseshoe Bend, carried by the very forces of nature that carved this exquisite landscape.

Driving west, we entered Zion National Park at sunset – dead camera batteries forced me to take this in live, undistracted. It was an otherworldly experience, waves of pink sandstone mounds along a twisty descending highway and tunnel – illuminated by the setting sun. Rocks talking once again!


Coyote Butte North – Arizona

The next morning, we hiked up the Virgin River in a slot canyon called The Narrows – surrounded by soaring walls of colorful sedimentary rock, sculpted in beautiful ways at eye level, traveling in July in cool comfort due to the ever deepening flow of the river. Time forgotten, we walked on until up to our chest in water, realizing we had to turn around, and it was then we were surprised to find we’d been walking for four hours!

I could go on and on about this trip. Volcanoes. Ancient preserved Native American villages. But the bottom line is that with my love of national parks, I had been taking for granted all this time the backdrop and the stories the rocks told. What did the earth under my feet hold, how did it get to look the way it did? What caused the differences in all of these places that drew me in like a magnet? These magnificent features of our American Southwest were different from the mountains I had hiked thus far. Having limped through teaching geology for the first time, I was now primed to take in the scientific nature of the places I was drawn to. The impact it made on me carried on through my future travels – To Acadia National Park, Mount St. HelensIMG_4172, Glacier Park (below)

and more. My suitcase on the return trip from all of these places would forevermore hold samples of my new love.

Teaching something new that you’re not comfortable with isn’t all bad. Yes, there was some fake it till you make it in there. Embracing this opportunity and wanting to do it well enriched my life well beyond my expectations. Although this story has been with me for a while, the 100th Anniversary of our National Parks system is the perfect time to share it. Happy Summer!


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LESS IS MORE FOR TEACHERS (and Better for Students!) – The Shift Paradigm Series

A good model for better schools described here!


Less is more.001

Conjure an image of a school . Visualize yourself entering a classroom. Students and a teacher are there. What do you see the teacher doing?

Chances are, the teacher you see is not resting, reflecting — or even preparing a lesson. Despite the relative importance such tasks play in the design, delivery, and improvement of high-quality instruction — teachers rarely have time to do those tasks at school. So the teacher you see is likely delivering instruction, managing students, assessing performance, or organizing resources — including technology.As you watch the teacher, it becomes painfully apparent that she has too much to do, too many students with whom to do it, too little time to get everything done, too many interruptions, and too many regulations demanding that she do even more. Further, you almost certainly see her doing several tasks at once.

Now conjure a classroom at a different school. See…

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Teaching STEM with Various Design Challenges

Academy of Aerospace and Engineering

Academy Students Design Food Supply for Mission to Mars Academy Students Design Food Supply for Mission to Mars

Recently at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering at John Wallace Middle School, students delved some major topics by doing engineering design challenges: A mission to Mars, spacesuits, and bridges. Engineering design is one of the Practices in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), so incorporating engineering design projects into the curriculum is one way to meet the standards – and obviously a great way to help students learn how to think critically and solve problems.

For the first topic, we studied how NASA, SpaceX, and Mars One are all looking at missions to Mars. We then held a class debate on the pros and cons of going to Mars. We had studied aircrew life support systems a few weeks ago, so now we focused on the major life support systems required on a manned mission to Mars. With all of these…

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SOFIA Flight 241, science at its best

In the preflight briefing Thursday , we learned that the same flight director, pilots, and instrument scientists would be on the mission.

Sitting in the pre-flight briefing

Sitting in the pre-flight briefing

Having had a tour of the MCF and instrument lab between the flights gave us a greater appreciation for the advanced engineering, exacting lab conditions, and specific nature of the each scientific instrument. Now we felt more comfortable with the NASA folks, knew their names and jobs, and understood just how much they embraced our being there.

April boards SOFIA

April boards SOFIA

Even R2D2 came with us on the flights!

Even R2D2 came with us on the flights!

Manny with Coral outside SOFIA

Pilot Manny with Coral outside SOFIA

Mrs. Oltman with Pilot Jim Less

Mrs. Oltman with Pilot Jim Less

In fact Charlie, our light director, invited us to come see his office prior to the briefing.

Charlie Kaminski, our flight director, has operated the Mauna Kea telescope for two decades and wintered in Antarctica twice! A modest office for such an accomplished scientist.

Charlie Kaminski, our flight director, has operated the Mauna Kea telescope for two decades and wintered in Antarctica twice! A modest office for such an accomplished scientist.


One of our last looks at the hangar, with its puzzling sets of doors!

I had a feeling this night would be even better, despite the VIPs not being with us.

Several reports are given in the briefing, including a mechanical report. We hear that a simple metal rod was broken – it was one component of a maintenance door under the plane. This could possibly have allowed the door to come open during flight. Therefore the mechanics had to fix it prior to takeoff. There was a possibility that the flight would be cancelled if they could not fix the door. So a small simple part – a metal rod – could cause advanced science to be put on hold until it was fixed. Manny, our pilot, calmly stated that he wasn’t worried, so no one else should be concerned, either. The weather report sounded great for flying.

Fortunately for SOFIA’s  241st flight, the skilled mechanics were able to fix the problem and the flight was a go!

German scientists from DSI joined us on this trip to perform testing on the telescope. They used a focal plane imager to get visual images of targets, while FORCAST took infrared images and data. The instrument scientists and the German telescope team (Andy, Manual, Frederika and Tim) compare data and use it for the greatest precision to keep the stars and other targets in the best focus. For instance, if the star appears to be dancing, they will be able to compensate for this.  This is called adaptive optics.

Some of the German science team sat right behind the telescope operators Naru and Shannon.

Some of the German science team sat right behind the telescope operators Naru and Shannon.

Unexpected weather – Severe thunderstorms over KS / CO caused us to divert from our path a bit!  The seatbelt light was on. We did need to cease walking around and experimenting and abide by the safety protocols.

The storm was 10 miles away and we were only 2 miles over it but it is important to stay quite a distance away, as lightning is not always cloud-to-ground but could be cloud-to-plane. Having the plane be struck with lightning was definitely something to avoid! On the path away from storms, we could see lightning dramatically illuminate the clouds from below – it was quite a light show, both beautiful and terrifying, like nothing we could ever imagine and would likely not see again.


Ice water was timed to determine how long it would take condensation to form at 16% humidity inside the cabin. It never formed!

Magnetic filing patterns were observed

Magnetic filing patterns were observed

April and I conducted more experiments, including the inflation of a balloon on the ground and at maximum altitude. We also experimented with magnets and Mike and April recorded data on radiation at time intervals throughout the flight.

Mike and April track radiation data.

Mike and April track radiation data.

Listening on the headsets as always, we continued to learn from the conversations taking place on various channels, even when there were problems. Some software appeared to have a glitch and the Systems engineer had to work with the scientists , telescope operators and mission director to figure out what happened and reboot it all.

Jeff and I at the EPO console during takeoff.

Jeff and I at the EPO console during takeoff.

There was another instance when the target object was emitting the same energy frequency as the nebula it was in. Hearing the scientists talk through issues, share ideas, and problem solve were great lessons alongside the highly advanced astrophysics that was taking place. Like I’ve said many times, it’s about much, much more than the content!

There are two people on board who maintain all of the safety procedures and perform various other mechanical (as well as menial) jobs. Cary, one of the safety techs on board – worked 35 years in avionics, a lot of electrical work, and did the wiring for the space shuttle program. Now he flies to be sure the plane is safe, that people follow safety protocols, and he also works as a mechanic. There are limits to how often he can fly, as there is a mandatory day of rest after a flight. A flight day can be a 14 hour day!

Safety procedures are always explained prior to takeoff, even though we had extensive egress training on Monday. Flight director Charlie ands safety techs Cary and Juan.

Safety procedures are always explained prior to takeoff, even though we had extensive egress training on Monday. (L-R) Flight director Charlie, safety techs Cary and Juan. The spiral staircase to the cockpit is behind Juan!

This job does not require a college degree, but he has the right background and experience of knowing planes and working in aviation for many years that qualifies him for this job.  He must record anything out of the ordinary in a log that stays on the plane. The next crew that gets on the plane reads the log to know the status of the previous flight and its systems. There are two safety techs on each flight and there are several more of them, They rotate who is on what flight. Juan is the other safety tech.

At certain points on the flight, the German contingent tested the telescope for only a few minutes. They performed this a few times.

We again saw the Northern Lights when we flew at latitudes near the Arctic Circle! I visited the cockpit (getting permission first!)  The curtains of green appeared faintly in the east and then grew in to large waves of green. At times there were bright curtains, green with pink and white, shimmering, rippling and dancing. Two sections of a curtain rippled towards each other as if to close. In the distance the aurorae outlined a shape looking like a hill in the distance. You just had to enjoy this live. Photography out the window didn’t work so well, but Jeff, a fellow ambassador, took a video through the night vision goggles as seen in the picture.

The aurora borealis or Northern Lights.

The aurora borealis or Northern Lights.

The pilots who had been in the southern hemisphere in New Zealand thought they had seen a fantastic light show there, but stated that tonights aurorae rivaled that.

More auroras!

More auroras!

Now on to the science being conducted by the telescope -watching stars being born in a star forming region in the constellation Perseus, a red giant star nearing the end of its life cycle, and another red giant star in the constellation Taurus. The late stage red giant star was busy expelling dust and gas and the scientific investigation was to look for carbon structures called buckminsterfullerenes, or fullerenes for short, being given off by oxygen rich sources.  Did you know chemistry of stellar objects can be done by analyzing gases? The spectra can show us what elements are present!

Who knew that infrared data could be so visually exciting!

Who knew that infrared data could be so visually exciting!



This is at 4:20 am as the 747 landed at Armstrong. Still awake!

Observation of warm black body in space – an asteroid – 62 Erato – will help us understand the distribution of water in the early solar system determined by mineral makeup of the asteroid . The location of this asteroid is the middle to outer asteroid belt. This research seemed to come from the presence of water altered meteorites on earth’s surface. Once again, Andrew and Joe were at the science console, answering questions, and trying to trouble shoot anomalies along the way.

We learned that Jim had even performed a science experiment on air pressure right in the cockpit!

We learned that Jim had even performed a science experiment on air pressure right in the cockpit!

Our final full day with the SOFIA team was first of all, sleeping in “as late as possible” due to our 4:15 a.m. touchdown and 5:30 a.m. arrival back at the hotel.  It is astounding that with the adrenaline and excitement of being part of these flights, it was actually no problem at all to stay awake all night on these flights, then operate the next day on a less than full night’s sleep. (I would estimate I got about 5 hours of sleep.)


A few of the planes at Blackbird Park

Friday morning we went out to lunch and then headed over to Blackbird Park to check out the outdoor museum of scientific and military planes and artifacts. Of course, the was a blackbird, a F-16, navy planes, air force planes, NASA planes, and training modules.  There was a small crew trainer for the purpose of familiarizing pilots with new instrumentation for a jet.  There was also a space shuttle ejection test module. DSCN1505

The gift shop had some friendly military vets who were happy to talk to us more, recommend some good books or DVDs for the classroom, etc. They were also quite interested in how we teachers were selected for the SOFIA program.

After a rest at the hotel, we joined back up with our escort, Coral, for a photo sharing and brainstorming session about the week. This was a terrific brainstorming structure designed to get the maximum of sharing and ideas out in the open. We talked about experiences big and small, what we would change, the people we met, the cities and buildings we were in.IMG_0183

There were a river of ideas and nuggets from our experiences this week coming out of the insatiable minds and talkative mouths of the four teachers around the table! This could have gone on for a long time!  What a great list this will be to look back on, to make sure I won’t forget any moment of this fantastic week of learning and sharing.

For dinner, several local non-chain restaurants were suggested to us. This group wanted something new, something we couldn’t get back home. The one we chose was a Peruvian restaurant which, after much searching around with the maps app, we realized was closed.  As Andrew, one of the mission scientists was meeting us, we took his suggestion to go to a hole in the wall creole restaurant called Esther’s.  Apparantly there is a connection to the wall town of Eunice, Louisiana.  It was inexpensive, authentic and delicious!  Some of the food we ordered included gumbo, blackened red snapper, red beans and rice, and of course, a couple orders of beignets for dessert.

Beignets in California? You bet!

Beignets in California? You bet!

I continued to be amazed at the fact that the scientists would choose to break bread with us and socialize when they were off the clock and free to do whatever they wished. This is one of the intangible aspects of being a SOFIA ambassador that makes me feel like I can take on more risk or stick out my neck for a more visible way to impact science education on a broader scale.  It is hard to put words to how this has elevated my self-worth as a science educator.


You can tell there was a geologic event in the past – not to mention the sedimentary layers!

Saturday morning, it was time to head to the airport. However, being  efficient and overachieving teachers, there was yet MORE science to do!  Around the time of passing near the San Andreas fault, at which there is a massive offset in the road cut due to an earthquake, we appeared to, ahem, have “car trouble” which caused us to pull over on the shoulder of the road.  Amazing geology! Layers of sedimentary rock and a visible offset awed us!

The final scientific thing we did was get out some parts to a kit to detect sources of energy within the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.  A solar panel, some wires, a remote control, a cellphone camera, a fan, and other items provided a few quick science demos from the middle seat of a minivan on our way to LAX.  I won’t explain the experiments here, but if you ask me about them – or my colleagues – we will be happy to demonstrate them for you!

Since our fun meter buttons indicated decreasing levels of fun, we were in need of an adrenaline rush. A huge traffic jam, threatening our timely arrival for our 12:50 p.m. flight provided that source of energy!  With boarding passes, TSA pre-clearance and a boldness to get in the VIP line to check our bags – we made it to the gate with literally minutes to spare, as the passengers were lined up and boarding.

One week – about 150 hours – provided enough adrenaline, food, science, professional development, social and professional interactions, camaraderie, fun and hopefully sleep to carry us filled with fresh perspectives and relevant connections to last for a long, long time. Best people, best views, ideal weather, bringing out the best in me, best professional learning.

SOFIA, may you have a fruitful twenty years of missions, and would that you would carry one of my students in their future science capacity on your manifest! Thank you for the ride of our life!

IMG_9911credit to Coral Clark, Jeff Killebrew, Mike Shinaberry, and April Whitt for their contributions of photos and expertise in the blog!

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The VIP Instrument Lab Tour

The almost windowless NASA building we drove to everyday is known as “703” and its contents and people riveted me daily, whether we were flying or not. We were happy to learn that it had a little gift shop! We would proudly wear and spread joy to our loved ones back home with the SOFIA logo! I purchased a polo shirt, a couple of mugs, some patches and stickers. Being able to wear the SOFIA shirt (and NASA jacket!) will hopefully invite questions that I will be thrilled to answer!

Zaheer with Jeff, Mike, Susan, and April with the GREAT instrument.

Zaheer with Jeff, Mike, Susan, and April with the GREAT instrument.

Zaheer Ali gave us a tour of the instrument lab and MCF (mirror coating facility). SOFIA uses 7 different instruments of which the FORCAST is only one.  The telescope mirror is used for all. The lab has sticky mats at all entrances to get any dust or debris which could get airborne off of our shoes. One door even had an electric rolling brush machine which you had to put your feet into! The mirror is made of specially ground glass and has a super thin coating of aluminum, about 150 nanometers thick. 

Compare that to the aluminum foil in your kitchen – which is about 0.5 millimeters thick! The mirror is about 100 inches in diameter and it must be completely uniform in its aluminum leaf coat. The process of coating the mirror involves a detailed chemical evaporative process in a special chamber.  The reflective coat should last about 5 years but has lasted longer. It would put the telescope out of operation for about six weeks if it needed to be recoated or replaced.

The giant mirror coating chamber

The giant mirror coating chamber

I'm looking into the coating chamber!

I’m looking into the coating chamber!


A cryogenic tank must use specially designed and layered hoses as the ultra-low temps would rupture conventional connectors.

I was especially interested in the cryogenics.  This is a branch of low temperature physics. When I say low, I mean REALLY low – almost the point at which all molecular movement ceases! The telescope must be cooled to a very low temp, otherwise the heat given off “pollutes” the faint radiation data given off by the target space objects. The cooling is done in two stages.

First, liquid nitrogen cools the outer shell to 77 Kelvins*  This is way colder than even dry ice!  However, it is not cold enough!  The instruments are operating in the stratosphere where the temp is about -50 degrees F. Liquid Helium is used to further cool the assembly to 4.2 Kelvins. One reason Helium is not used for the full range of cooling is that it is much more expensive than liquid Nitrogen and evaporates more easily. *Kelvins

With the FiFI instrument, German scientists were working on it and explained its workings to us. SOFIA is in partnership with DSI, Deutche SOFIA Institute, and we learned that some would be on board to calibrate and  test the instrument.

German scientists at work with FIFI

German scientists at work with FIFI

That evening, before dinner, we went to a spot by the side of the road to watch SOFIA take off from the ground.  Since every schedule is precise to the minute, we could plan on being there for take off and not waste a lot of time waiting and watching. 

Coral Clark of USRA, our enthusiastic and tireless escort this week, is with me at SOFIA's takeoff, just barely seen under my left ear!

Coral Clark of USRA, our enthusiastic and tireless escort this week, is with me at SOFIA’s takeoff, just barely seen under my left ear! Photo credit: Coral Clark

At the appointed moment, she started moving down the runway and we all waved, shouted, and tried to take selfies with the plane in the air over our shoulder. Off for another scientific voyage without us, but we would be on board the next evening.


Photo credit: Coral Clark


Photo credit: Coral Clark

Off we went to Lancaster, home of the Aerospace Walk of Honor, which we would check out on our way to dinner at BEX.

If you’re interested, here is a quick clip on how big a nanometer is!

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Teachers boldly go…

It was flight day!  Egress training complete! We would get to board the SOFIA airplane and fly 5,000 miles in a night, with “Starfleet” on the manifest, witness groundbreaking scientific research, talk with brilliant astrophysicists and perform experiments. Pinch me, is this for real?

SOFIA education ambassadors join Nichelle Nichols and Ivor Dawson aboard NASA 747SP

SOFIA education ambassadors join Nichelle Nichols and Ivor Dawson aboard NASA 747SP   Photo credit: Carla Thomas

It surely was. Within minutes of boarding, after putting on our EPOS bags which we would wear at all times, April Whitt and I were invited to the cockpit for takeoff!

Mrs. Oltman wears the EPOS (Emergency Passenger Oxygen System) throughout the flight, as do all on the manifest.

Mrs. Oltman wears the EPOS (Emergency Passenger Oxygen System) throughout the flight, as do all on the manifest.

We joined pilots Jim Less and Manny Antimisiaris and flight engineer Tim Sandon.  We took our seats, donned the headsets, and listened while checks were made, switches flipped, and we slowly taxied out to the runway address. There were pretty strong winds! Not to worry, though, a thorough weather update was included in the pre-flight briefing.

Takeoff time was to be precise to the minute, as each science target was to be met on schedule. after a few checks and an additional ground check of some residual oil, everything was declared in order for our on-time takeoff.


Do you know what this furry item in the cockpit is and why it’s there?


Flight engineer Tim has a long and precise checklist he must go through to ensure that every system on board is working as it should. No skipping reading the directions!


Our pilots constantly perform visual checks for any nearby aircraft air traffic control tells them about.

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As the sun set, the view grew more dramatic. However, we had no idea “we ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

Being in the cockpit on takeoff was a real learning experience!  How long could it take to master all those switches, dials, valves, and acronyms? If I had questions, I had to wait until we had climbed above 10,000 feet to ask them – it was a “sterile” window – where full concentration on the takeoff was required. As we listened, I recognized when air traffic controllers made contact with the pilots and we were NASA747. Each time they flew into the airspace handled by a different city or airport, communication was made. Some air traffic controllers asked about the flight, and some knew about the SOFIA telescope. One mentioned he had recently seen a TV documentary about SOFIA and wished everyone the best on their science research!

It was time to go downstairs to the main floor to learn from the scientists and perform some experiments. If we wanted to come back upstairs, we would have to get specific permission each time – this was a strict rule. Our experiments involved the effect of air pressure at altitude on gases and solids – using common kitchen staples! We investigated how much volume the CO2 in a coke would change from ground level (2,000′) to 43,000′ altitude. This was performed by using a balloon to capture the carbonation from the soda. We learned that the latex balloon was weaker at altitude, and this leads us to potentially another experiment. How does a latex balloon behave in lower humidity? We hypothesize that the low 15% relative humidity compromised the elasticity of the balloon. We will perform this new experiment tonight!

The marshmallow braves a cold spot on NASA 747S

The marshmallow braves a cold spot on NASA 747SP

The CO2 inflated the balloon this much in 60 seconds.

The CO2 inflated the balloon this much in 60 seconds.

During and after performing several more experiments, we were able to talk to some of the scientists and instrument specialists on board to find out more about the science, the equipment, and ask questions. There is a console where the mission scientists monitor the incoming data and the targets throughout the flight. The flight path had been painstakingly designed so each research target ( star forming regions, a protostar, an asteroid) would have the best angle of viewing within a given period of time on the flight. During their given time period, which might be a half hour, data is collected from the telescope.

The telescope can use one of 7 instruments (depends on the research being done)  and the one on board this week is the FORCAST -The Faint Object infraRed CAmera for the SOFIA Telescope. The light is so faint, invisible to the naked eye, that it takes a very sensitive tool to capture the energy emitted by these “nearby” space objects. Andrew Helton and Joe Adams talked plenty with the educators. He explained the data being gathered and their job is to make sure the data is good and then hand it off to the research scientists after the mission. I was surprised to learn that the actual researchers were not on board and do not fly with SOFIA. They write their own software for the instrument to use to gather the data they want (in this case, FORCAST.) The scientists use the software and gather, monitor, and “quality check” the data – this allows each scientist to focus on their expertise.

Some of the space objects we looked at were 3 massive star forming regions, one in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius.  These observations will give clues as to how planets form. This relatively close region was only on the order of 4-20 light years away, and was located between our solar system and the center of our galaxy. We also looked at an asteroid – 2Pallas – which served as a good target for calibration of the telescope, because its radiation makes it appear as a white object, easily detected on the screen.

The scientists Andrew and Joe both have doctoral degrees in Astrophysics, Andrew from Minnesota and Joe from Berkeley. Andrew started out as an art history major, but found his true calling in physics, much to the benefit of the SOFIA program!

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Andrew explains some of the data coming in from the instrument.


This is a screen capture of our flight path as we approach 63 degrees north latitude!

Here are some photos of the console and screens from this flight.


The ambassadors learn a lot from Joe and Andrew.

You ca
DSCN1260n tell when we were reaching the northernmost part of our flight – above the Arctic Circle in the northwest Yukon territory! The aurora borealis was spectacular. It’s not a given that you’ll see it, even at this latitude. However, all on board were awed by nature’s light show!

We do not have WIFI on board, and we land at 4:15 a.m. , so finding the right time to blog and post is challenging! After landing, we stopped for breakfast at a place called Crazy Otto’s for giant omelettes and other goodies. Then, by 6 in the morning, we tucked into bed back at the hotel for our day’s sleep, instructed to sleep as late as possible! I had to put out of my mind that it was about 9 am EST but my body had long since gotten off my east coast time. I set my alarm for 1:45 p.m. to be on time for our 2:15 meeting time later that day. Thanks for following along!

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Egress training, and teachers become students

First day at the Armstrong Flight Research Center, on site of the NASA facility where SOFIA calls home. This was a full day of training, briefings and photo opportunities.DSCN1163

Q: What do you do before embarking on a 10 hour, high altitude science mission?

Hint:  It’s longer than watching the short video on domestic flights!

A: A thorough safety overview of the plane and all necessary equipment – with audience participation – and then walking through it all on board the plane – called Egress Training!

No egress training, no flying. Very informative, very interesting, and  throughout the hallways of the building, we met many brilliant minds who filled us in more on the history of SOFIA.  In the halls, we spoke to a low-temperature physicist who told us about the cryogenics of keeping the telescope and instruments cool enough.  There are tanks that must be filled with liquid chemicals cooled to temperatures of 4.2 KELVIN! That’s just a few degrees above absolute zero!

Coral shows us a lot of moments in flight history in the photos adorning the walls of the second floor. We took so long, we almost missed our moment in the gift shop!

Coral shows us a lot of moments in flight history in the photos adorning the walls of the second floor. We took so long, we almost missed our moment in the gift shop!

Everyone on board must know how to deploy critical safety / escape equipment in case of emergency.  Each passenger must be able to correctly don their safety vest in less than one minute.

April Whitt tries to unpack, wear, and inflate the flotation vest in under one minute. That's why there is practice!

April Whitt tries to unpack, wear, and inflate the flotation vest in under one minute. That’s why there is practice!


Susan Oltman wears the oxygen hood which can be worn in smoke or while escaping a fire, if it were to occur.

Mrs. Oltman in the Andrews FRS Hangar

This is the Earth Science plane! Some NASA craft look downwards onto Earth’s surface, depending on what the research needs are.


The Atlanta SOFIA Ambassadors are in front of the FORCSAST instrument that the telescope will use. Note the red color – this is not seen on instrumentation! There was special permission given. It originated from Cornell University, known as “Big Red.”

After the safety briefing, we walked through the hangar and on board SOFIA to see everything firsthand.  It is not like any plane you’ve ever been on. Her mission is research, taking off and landing in the same place – not getting people from point A to point B. This is one of the largest planes – a 747S – and is a marvel of engineering, both inside and out. Inside, there is a “secret” place behind a door where some pretty famous people have signed (in my favorite type of pen, it seems). Can you see who signed at the top center?

Signatures of some notable SOFIA passengers

Signatures of some notable SOFIA passengers

Where will SOFIA be tomorrow?  You can find out by following the flight tracker link:

Flight tracking link:

Now for the quiz:  What is egress? Comment below if you know!


Our last on-site briefing of the day was Eddie Zavala who gave us a 30 minute overview of exactly what SOFIA is, where it goes, and why it is unlike any other space research vehicle. A takeaway is that “SOFIA figures out the chemical equations that tell us how stars form.” Here is a brief video of the training.

The SOFIA Ambassadors with Eddie Zavala

The SOFIA Ambassadors with Eddie Zavala

Looking forward to seeing the building blocks of these equations tomorrow night!

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