As an undergraduate student, Rica French enrolled in an astronomy course simply to fill a hole in her schedule. Her experience in that course, followed by a summer job at an observatory on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, convinced her that astronomy is the coolest thing on the planet.
"I love sharing this with people," Rica says. "When someone looks through a telescope for the first time, the uninhibited response that comes out is that's the best thing!"
MiraCosta College Astronomy Instructor Rica French has been selected as one of the SETI Institute's 2021 Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors (AAA). The SETI Institute only selected 30 teachers from ten states as 2021 NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors. AAA is a professional development program for science teachers designed to improve science teaching, and increasing student learning and STEM engagement. This year’s expanded AAA program includes not only high school teachers but also middle school and community college teachers.
“Over its history, our NASA-funded AAA program has impacted tens of thousands of high school students through the immersive and inspirational experience of their teachers,” said Bill Diamond, CEO of the SETI Institute. “This powerful STEM program will allow the SETI Institute to help bring NASA science into classrooms across the country.”
AAA teachers receive training in astrophysics and planetary science. Their training includes a week-long STEM immersion experience at a NASA astronomy research facility, such as the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). After their training, the AAAs teach a physical science curriculum module created by the SETI Institute that connects curriculum concepts to NASA and SOFIA-enabled research. WestEd education consultants assess the impact of the specialized curriculum module on student STEM learning and engagement. Past evaluations of the AAA program have shown statistically significant improvements in performance and STEM engagement among students whose teachers participated in the program.
“We are grateful that NASA will be funding the AAA program through 2025 and are especially excited to be adding middle school and community college teachers and their students,” said AAA program lead Dr. Dana Backman. “These teachers will use their professional development and SOFIA experiences to convey real-world content to their students that illuminate the value of scientific research and the wide variety of STEM career paths available to them.”