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L-W North Science Teacher Sees Dream Come True in Research Flight

Science teacher Peggy Piper would often teach her students about SOFIA, the world's largest airborne observatory, saying, "I'm gonna be right there one day."

For the past couple of years,   science teacher Margaret "Peggy" Piper has been talking to her students about a research lab in the sky.

Last week, NASA announced that she will join the team that will fly on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) as part of a six-person team of educators to work with scientists.

"You know, I've been talking about it for two years with the students," Piper told Patch in a recent interview. "And I've always told them when I pointed at the airplane, I said, 'You know what? I'm gonna be right there one day.' And now I am."

SOFIA is a highly modified Boeing 747SP aircraft fitted with a 100-inch (2.5-meter) diameter telescope, according to NASA. The telescope weighs 20 tons. The program is a joint partnership between NASA and DLR in Bonn, Germany.

SOFIA analyzes infrared light to study the formation of stars and planets; chemistry of interstellar gases; composition of comets, asteroids and planets; and supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies, according to NASA.

Piper was selected in part because of her work with Stars at Yerkes Observatory, a group of educators primarily from Illinois and Wisconsin who do research at Yerkes Observatory, a University of Chicago facility based in Williamsbay, WI.

Yerkes is home to the largest refracting telescope in the world, Piper said. The facility is related to SOFIA because astronomers there are building a camera that will fly on the aircraft, known as HAWC (High-resolution Airborne Wide-bandwith Camera). 

The teachers' group "meets on a regular basis and it's for anything from professional development to where we run a workshop that's helping us learn new things about physics, astronomy or science in general," Piper explained.

The group also hosts workshops and learning events for students, some of whom may be hearing or visually impaired.

"And we'll do things where we're either learning or teaching and sometimes we get together to just look at really cool things in the sky," she added.

Bringing the Stars to the Classroom

One of the engineers working with HAWC, Marc Berthoud, comes to visit Piper's classes a few times a year. She teaches physics, astronomy and meterology and has also used Skype with other scientists and engineers to speak with students. 

"It's very cool and it's very beneficial for our students to see real people that are doing real things out there," Piper said.

Piper, who has a masters degree in engineering, has a professional background that included working in the industry as well as writing articles for industrial magazines before she began teaching.

"I was in reasearch for a while," she said. "I did research and product development, did a lot of traveling and so I kind of have that taste of research already in my blood and I really enjoy that kind of stuff. That's what draws me to this programs." 

She often integrates information she learns through Yerkes and Stars at Yerkes in her curriculum, as do the other educators in the group. 

"We're teachers doing all sorts of really cool stuff and this is where we get our inspiration," Piper said.

Though Piper was the one selected for the trip, she counts it as a victory for the group overall.

"I can't say enough of how much that was a big part of me being chosen," Piper said. "It wasn't me as an individual being chosen, it was really our group being chosen as a group that really does keep alive the interest in (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

"It really was the cohesiveness of our group that was chosen and I'm just the lucky one who gets to represent us."

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