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Dr. Stephen Pompea

Observatory Scientist
Department Head, Education and Public Outreach
National Optical Astronomy Observatory

Stephen Pompea has been an innovator throughout his career.

As a college student, he worked on a major interdisciplinary research project on the evolution of the Moon with a fellow student, and they continued this work in their spare time until it was published in Nature magazine. As a teacher, he dressed and performed as Galileo to motivate his students. His astronomy class designed and built an inflatable planetarium. As an aerospace engineer, he invented the world’s blackest coating (which was patented) for use on NASA space telescopes, designed an inexpensive motor that worked in space at temperatures near absolute zero, and invented a new method of undersea communication using lasers.

His innovative approaches to science education were recognized in 2016 when he was named the recipient of the Robert A. Millikan Medal from the American Association of Physics Teachers for his “notable and intellectually creative contributions to the teaching of physics.” His contributions to science education are in many diverse areas.

He served as the U.S. Director for the highly successful International Year of Astronomy 2009 and led the U.S. Telescope Kits and Optics Challenges Working Group. He was invited to both the first (2009) and second (2016) White House Star Parties, and created a high-quality telescope kit for students to see the rings of Saturn. Over 200,000 people worldwide now own their own “Galileoscope”. He was the director of one of the nation’s largest programs for teachers and students to conduct authentic astronomical research with observatory telescopes, including the Spitzer Space Telescope. He co-led a project for the International Year of Light 2015 that used problem-based learning to address the challenges of light pollution.

Dr. Pompea was the co-lead for a large, long-term program at the University of Arizona to train science graduate students to work in K-12 classrooms. He has consulted on many leading- and bleeding-edge education projects with organizations such as the NASA Classroom of the Future, the University of California, Berkeley’s Space Science Laboratory, the Space Science Institute in Boulder, and the Lawrence Hall of Science. These innovative projects have included the design of science centers, science exhibits, instructional materials, and multimedia programs.

In 2011 Dr. Pompea was awarded the Esther Hoffman Beller Medal from the Optical Society of America for his contributions to optical sciences education and especially for his work in creating the Galileoscope student telescope kit. He is a Fellow of SPIE¬–The International Society for Optics and Photonics and also is a Fellow of the Optical Society of America–one of the few astronomers elected as a Fellow of either society. For his educational work, he has received many honors, including two NASA Group Achievement awards and the Metropolitan Education Commission’s Crystal Apple Award. He was named a National Association of Geoscience Teachers Distinguished Lecturer from 2007-2010.

After teaching junior high and high school in public schools in Colorado, he joined Martin Marietta Aerospace in Denver, holding the rank of Senior Engineer when he left. He then served as Instrument Scientist at the University of Arizona for the NASA NICMOS instrument for the Hubble Space Telescope and later served as Infrared Instrument Scientist for the international Gemini 8-Meter Telescopes Project. He has consulted widely on the design of optical systems.

Dr. Pompea did his undergraduate work in physics, space physics, and astronomy at Rice University, his Master’s in physics teaching at Colorado State University, and his Ph.D. in astronomy at the University of Arizona.

He is the author, coauthor, or editor of 15 books in optics and science education, over 125 papers, and has given over 365 presentations at professional conferences. Pompea is an adjunct faculty member of the University of Arizona with previous adjunct appointments at Colorado State University and the University of Arkansas.

Since 2002, he has led education and public outreach programs at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. He was named as NOAO’s first Observatory Scientist in 2014.

Contact Information

National Optical Astronomy Observatory
950 N. Cherry Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85719
Office 520.318.8285

CV [7.7 MB pdf]
Publication List [402 KB pdf]
Dr. Steve’s Ten Favorite Ways to Teach about Astronomy

Stephen Pompea is the Department Head of the NOAO Office of Education and Public Outreach.