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David Black once saw a UFO.
At least that’s how he gets his students’ attention before revealing that it was only a sundog — a bright light caused when the sun’s rays refract through ice crystals in the atmosphere.
Researching more famous accounts of UFO sightings and purported alien abductions with students is how he’ll be spending the summer. And with the federal government’s report on “unidentified aerial phenomena” — or UAPs — expected as soon as this week, they’ll have new grainy videos to analyze and debate.
“If you have a current event that comes along, as a teacher you want to weave that in,” said Black, who teaches science at New Haven School, a private boarding school for girls in Saratoga Springs, Utah.
When former President Donald Trump signed a $2.3 trillion funding bill in December, educators were eye-balling the $54 billion in relief funds included for school reopening. But tucked into the more than 5,500 pages of legislative text was a Sen. Marco Rubio-sponsored provision directing Naval intelligence to uncover what they’ve been tracking in the skies. The bill asked for detailed reports of UAPs and knowledge of whether “a potential adversary may have achieved breakthrough aerospace capabilities” that might harm Earth, or at least the U.S. The report, combined with Navy pilots’ recent accounts of aircraft displaying unusual movements, provide fresh material for teachers who find that questions about alien visitors are a great way to engage students in science.
Highly trained military pilots admit they are taking the sightings of these unusual aircraft seriously — and think others should, too. With both Republicans and Democrats interested in the report’s findings and respected news shows like “60 Minutes” following the topic, the possibility that otherworldly beings are patrolling our atmosphere is no longer just the stuff of sci-fi movies and paranormal conventions.
The upcoming release of the report is perfectly timed for the search-for-extraterrestrial-intelligence unit Black teaches each summer. He hooks students with tales of close encounters and uses hands-on projects and 3-D models to explore the math and physics involved in aliens traveling for tens of thousands of years to reach Earth.
His students learn the Drake equation, a formula for the probability of finding intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. They read news reports of alleged sightings — like that of Travis Walton, a lumberjack whose 1975 account of being abducted by aliens was featured in the 1993 film “Fire in the Sky.” Then they present the skeptics’ side, offer their own opinions and lead their classmates in a discussion.
‘Studying these things for decades’
UFO conspiracy theories teach students to have an open mind, “but also to have a skeptical filter,” said Jeff Adkins, an astronomy teacher at Deer Valley High School in Antioch, California, near Oakland.
He has students consider the sheer size of the universe when deciding whether alien life forms would bother conducting experiments on humans or jamming the military’s radar systems.
“I still have a childhood fascination with aliens, but now I know that there must be … solid evidence to support aliens before I truly believe they are real,” said Dennis Gavrilenko, a senior in Adkins’s astronomy and space exploration course this year. “I find it unlikely that aliens traveled thousands of lightyears to get to Earth just to fly around super fast and not make themselves known.”
But physics professor Kevin Knuth, at the University of Albany in New York, thinks there is something — or someone — observing us from above. He’s among the UFO researchers who have shared their expertise with high school students.
His suspicions that UFOs are more than a hoax began while he was in graduate school at Montana State University. In 1988, two cows from a nearby herd were mutilated with surgical precision, and a professor mentioned UFOs often interfered with nuclear missile systems at Malmstrom Air Force Base three hours away.
Years later, UFO researcher Robert Hastings held a press conference with Air Force officers talking about the same occurrences at Malmstrom. That’s when Knuth became convinced, and he thinks the report to Congress will tell only part of the story.
“We now know that the government has been studying these things for decades and not telling anybody about it,” Knuth said.
A paper Knuth co-authored in 2019 focuses on well-documented sightings of “unidentified aerial vehicles” that display “technical capabilities far exceeding those of our fastest aircraft and spacecraft.”
Knuth’s calculations of speed and acceleration are also good high school physics problems, said Berkil Alexander, who teaches at Kennesaw Mountain High School, outside Atlanta. His fascination with UFOs began when he saw “Flight of the Navigator,” a 1986 film about an alien abduction, and in 2019, he was chosen to participate in a NASA program focusing on increasing student engagement in STEM.
In the final days of each school year, he holds an “E.T. exoplanet symposium” in which teams of students, taking on the roles of astronomer, astrobiologist, historian and a Pentagon investigator, compete against each other to make a case using the evidence they’ve collected.
Alexander thinks the truth has been concealed for decades because it might provoke panic. But now he thinks, “people are pretty well prepared to handle whatever it is.”
‘Don’t take a side’
Teachers who touch on UFOs might find a place for the topic when they introduce students to the solar system in elementary school — think colorful Styrofoam balls dangling from wire hangers. Space science gets even more attention in middle school.
At Coles Elementary in Virginia’s Prince William County Schools, aliens turned up in an afterschool “cryptozoology club” in which students studied crop circles and interviewed a UFO researcher from Roswell, New Mexico — the site of the alleged UFO crash in 1947.
How to report a UFO sighting and whether there are baby aliens are among the questions students asked the experts, said Tara Hamner, one of three teachers who started the program four years ago. Like the other cryptids they study, including Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, she believes the club is one of a kind and is a fun way for students to learn how to collect evidence, evaluate online sources and interact with scientists.
The group didn’t meet this year because of the pandemic, but Hamner said she’s sure the government’s report will spark additional questions from students in the fall. “We love it when we have current news to use our inquiry-based learning to investigate,” she said.
In high school, standalone astronomy classes aren’t common and are typically offered as electives. Those teaching the subject might have a personal interest, but didn’t study it in college — like Alec Johnson, who asked for a day off work in 2017 to watch the solar eclipse but ended up turning the expedition into a school trip with 150 students and 20 adults.
Afterwards, his students at Morgan County High School in central Georgia pushed for a separate astronomy class. The possibility of alien life is the topic they get the most passionate about, perhaps because of the stereotype that UFO sightings are more common in rural areas like theirs.
“The kids get into it, especially if you don’t take a side,” Johnson said, adding that he’s looking forward to the government’s report including previously unreleased footage and photos to share with his students. “It makes the History Channel and the teachers happy.”
Bennett Evans, a senior who took Johnson’s astronomy class this year, said his teacher’s enthusiasm for the subject rubs off on students.
“His class made me more conscious of science in general,” said Evans, recalling an image Johnson uses to get students thinking about whether aliens exist. “If you take a glass of water from the ocean, we know there are whales in the ocean, but we can’t tell from that glass. That’s like our universe.”
Georgia science standards require students to study whether there are other “habitable” zones and planets besides Earth. But Johnson goes all out, enhancing his lessons with “The X-Files” theme music and classroom decor.
“Any self-respecting astronomy teacher has to have a Fox Mulder poster on the wall,” he said.