Teaching & Learning

Eye to the Sky: USU Physics Alum Named 2021 NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador

By Mary-Ann Muffoletto |

USU physics alum Milo Maughan, BS'11, MEd’13, a teacher at Draper, Utah’s Corner Canyon High School, is a 2021 NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador. M. Muffoletto.

Utah State University alum Milo Maughan, a science teacher at Draper, Utah’s Corner Canyon High School, is among 30 teachers selected nationwide for the SETI Institute’s NASA-funded 2021 Airborne Astronomy Ambassador program.

“It’s a great honor and thrill to be chosen,” says Maughan, who earned a bachelor’s in physics from USU in 2011 and continued his studies to complete a M.Ed. degree in 2013, as part of the university’s (then) newly implemented Secondary Education Science Graduate Route to Licensure Master of Education program.

As an ambassador, Maughan will participate in virtual training in astrophysics and planetary science throughout the summer. This fall, he’ll travel to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center’s airborne science facility in Palmdale, California, for a week-long STEM immersion experience.

A highlight of the visit is training aboard an airborne NASA astronomy research facility, such as the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP aircraft modified to carry a telescope with an effective diameter of 100 inches. A joint project of NASA and Deutsches Zentrum für Luft-und Raumfahrt (DLR), the German Aerospace Center, the aircraft takes passengers 45,000 feet high into the stratosphere. That’s enough to escape 99 percent of Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere, allowing the ambassadors to study the solar system in ways that aren’t possible with ground-based telescopes.

Maughan looks forward to the once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“I have always been a science nerd – especially when it comes to space,” says the 2004 graduate of Utah’s Alta High School. “From this experience, I’ll be able to take all we’ve learned and experienced back to the classroom. It’s a way to make learning fun and ‘real world’ for the students.”

Following his ambassador training, Maughan will teach a physical science curriculum module created by the SETI Institute that connects curriculum concepts to NASA and SOFIA-enabled research.

“The curriculum, combined with the data we collect and the lessons we create, will be used for years to come,” he says. “

While the airborne astronomy experience will greatly enrich Maughan’s teaching repertoire, applying physics principles to real-world examples is nothing new to the educator. Maughan began honing his teaching skills in hands-on, real-world learning, while still a student at Utah State, as coordinator of the Department of Physics’ annual USU Physics Day at Lagoon. Maughan held the student coordinator post for several years in a row, planning the detailed logistics of the day-long event that draws thousands of high school and middle school students each year to the Farmington, Utah amusement park.

Maughan himself had participated in Physics Day as a high school student.

“I never dreamed I’d one day be coordinating the event and communicating with science teachers throughout the Intermountain West,” he says. “Physics Day is a great opportunity for students to practice what they’ve learned in the classroom. The entire USU physics department – faculty, staff and students – turn out, along with industry partners, to welcome participants and pitch in with running the event. I loved interacting with the volunteers and the students – help them learn new things.”

In fact, coordinating Physics Day is part of what led Maughan to teaching, along with serving as a supplemental instruction for several physics courses.

“When I entered USU, I envisioned studying for an engineering career,” he says. “But as I got into my undergraduate studies, I began to gravitate toward teaching others.”

Tonya Triplett, principal lecturer in USU’s Department of Physics, was among his most influential mentors, Maughan says.

“She is creative, energetic and taught me a great deal about both teaching and research,” he says. “She taught me how to design demonstrations that make science learning fun.”

Triplett also gave him some practical tips for teaching, including adopting an offbeat “look” for deflecting criticism in course reviews.

“Ms. Triplett explained that students sometimes take out their frustration with negative comments in teaching reviews,” Maughan says. “She favors colorful, whimsical sweaters and noticed her students sometimes mention them – favorably or negatively –when writing class critiques.”

Maughan sported bright yellow “crocs” (waterproof, resin clogs) during his undergrad teaching and noted references to the “Yellow Croc Kid” in his students’ reviews.

“Some hated my shoes, some laughed at them, but my teaching reviews were mostly good and constructive,” he says.

Maughan says he still wear crocs, but in a more non-descript brown, and he’s added bright bowties as his signature look.

Other Physics faculty members who mentored Maughan during his undergraduate and graduate studies, included J.R. Dennison, who supervised the student’s Physics Day efforts; Mike Taylor and Jan Sojka, who guided the scholar in research; as well as Physics academic advisor and Graduate Program Coordinator Karalee Ransom.

“Utah State provided great opportunities for me and I felt especially at home in the Physics Department,” says Maughan, who served as a College of Science Ambassador and was among the first recipients of the Farrell and Ann Edwards Scholarship.

Since graduating from USU, Maughan taught one year at Utah’s Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights, and just completed his sixth year of teaching at Corner Canyon High School.

He teaches Advanced Placement Physics, along with general physics and astronomy. Once a month, weather permitting, he treats his student to star parties, with opportunities to view the night skies with telescopes.

“It’s fun to see students get excited about science,” Maughan says. “And it’s especially gratifying when student ‘get it’ – when they study challenging topics and the light comes on. That’s what makes teaching fun.”

As a 2021 NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador, Aggie alum Milo Maughan will fly aboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, known as 'SOFIA,' a modified Boeing 747 to gather data and develop curriculum. Courtesy DLR.


Mary-Ann Muffoletto
Public Relations Specialist
College of Science


Milo Maughan
Science Teacher
Corner Canyon High School, Draper, Utah

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