Facilitator Taking STEM Passions To Upper Stratosphere

Dustin Lengning Sophia

One of the many tenets of project-based learning is authenticity – learning that is as relevant and real world as possible. When it comes to authentic science learning, iLEAD SCVi Facilitator Dustin Lengning has taken this to a whole new level.

Lengning has just been selected as an educator to fly on NASA’S SOFIA (the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) – a Boeing 747SP aircraft modified to serve as a mobile space observatory. SOFIA flies into the stratosphere at 38,000-45,000 feet and operates above 99 percent of Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere. This allows astronomers to study the solar system and beyond in ways that are not possible with ground-based telescopes.

All of this is part of the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors Program that Lengning applied to this past fall. After recently learning he had been accepted, Lengning indicated how excited he is to be part of an elite program that allows researchers to observe from almost anywhere in the world. SOFIA enables studies of transient events that often take place over oceans where there are no telescopes. For example, astronomers on SOFIA studied eclipse-like events of Pluto, Saturn’s moon Titan and Kuiper Belt Object MU69. Other examples include the next flyby target for NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft to study the objects’ atmospheres and surroundings.  

“I am excited about flying on SOFIA and seeing how the instruments work and the data that gets collected. Being a part of something historical is something I could only have dreamed of,” said Lengning. “I am extremely excited about which places in our universe we will be studying and what the astrophysicists plan for us.”

With training webinars already underway, Lengning will continue to learn everything he needs to know over the coming months in order to prepare for his flight this fall. His training includes blended learning professional development consisting of webinars, asynchronous content (an upper level astronomy course) and hands-on workshops. Additionally, Lengning will have several immersive experiences and continued collaboration with experts and other participants in the program.

Others in the iLEAD orbit are excited for Lengning and this unique opportunity as an educator. iLEAD Director of STEAM Activities Kathleen Fredette – herself one of the original six educators selected to fly on SOPHIA in 2011 – said that this is truly a full circle moment for her. She said that Lengning fits NASA’s SOFIA and the Airborne Astronomy Ambassador educator profile perfectly – someone who will take this incredible privilege and create connections and further opportunities for young people he serves in the iLEAD community. 

“I could not have been happier when I heard the fabulous news of Dustin’s selection to the SOFIA AAA program — I may have cried a bit,” said Fredette. “It’s quite an accomplishment and I look forward to seeing what project ideas emerge from his experience.”

For Lengning, this is part of one of his primary goals – continuing to model lifelong learning to his learners, while also always considering new project ideas. He said he wants to continue to broaden his expertise to help both his learners and the entire iLEAD Community. 

“For me, it is always about being better than I was; leveling up myself not only for me, but for my learners,” said Lengning. “I always want to push myself into bigger and better things so I am excited to see where this endeavor takes me.”

Lengning’s message to his fellow educators is to continue to challenge themselves in their own learning and positions as role models. 

“Our learners are always looking up to us. When we do things that are hard, it tells them that they can do the same thing,” he said. “I hope my learners can see what I am doing and choose to also push themselves into scientific arenas that interest them.”