Dr. Stephen Pompea

Observatory Scientist
National Optical Astronomy Observatory

Stephen Pompea has been an innovator in science, engineering, and science education throughout his career and was named as the National Optical Astronomy Observatory’s first “Observatory Scientist” in 2014.

As an instrument scientist he worked on the development of a second-generation infrared instrument for the Hubble Space Telescope as well as instruments for cutting edge 8-meter diameter ground-based telescopes for Chile and Hawaii. As a senior engineer, he developed, tested, and patented the world’s blackest coating for use on NASA space telescopes, designed an inexpensive motor that reliably worked in a vacuum at temperatures near absolute zero, and invented a new technique for undersea communication using lasers. His creative research began as an undergraduate college student, when he teamed with a fellow student to trace the orbital evolution of the Earth-Moon system using growth rhythms in fossils. Their work was published as a cover article in the science journal Nature.

In science education he created new programs and tools to empower educators and students of all ages. His innovative approaches to science education were recognized recently when he was named the 2018 recipient of the SPIE Educator Award for outstanding contributions to optics education. In 2016 he received 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 that created a high-quality telescope kit for students to see the rings of Saturn. Over 240,000 people worldwide now own their own “Galileoscope”. He was invited to both the first (2009) and second (2016) White House Star Parties and was the director of one of the nation’s largest programs that enabled teachers and students to conduct authentic astronomical research with observatory-class research telescopes, including telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory and 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 and which created the “Quality Lighting Teaching Kit” which went to 92 partners in 32 countries.

Dr. Pompea was the co-lead for a large, long-term NSF-sponsored program at the University of Arizona to train science graduate students to work in K-12 classrooms (Collaboration to Advance Teaching, Technology, and Science). He has consulted on many leading- and bleeding-edge education projects with organizations such as the NASA Classroom of the Future (Astronomy Village: Investigating the Universe, Astronomy Village: Investigating the Solar System, Exploring the Environment, and BioBLAST) the University of California, Berkeley’s Space Science Laboratory, the Space Science Institute in Boulder, and the Lawrence Hall of Science (Great Explorations in Math and 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 was elected a Fellow of SPIE–The International Society for Optics and Photonics as well as a Fellow of the Optical Society of America–one of the few astronomers elected as a Fellow of either society. He is also a Fellow of the American Association of Physics Teachers. 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.

He worked on space programs for Martin Marietta Aerospace in Denver, served as Instrument Scientist at the University of Arizona for the NASA NICMOS instrument for the Hubble Space Telescope, and served as Infrared Instrument Scientist for the international Gemini 8-Meter Telescopes Project. He has consulted widely in optical engineering, instrumentation, and in the design of space-based systems. He has also served as an expert witness in patent litigation cases involving optics, materials science, and optical physics.

Dr. Pompea did his undergraduate degree 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 370 presentations at professional conferences. Pompea is an Affiliate Professor in the Department of Astronomy and an Adjunct Professor in the College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona with previous adjunct faculty appointments at Colorado State University and the University of Arkansas.

Contact Information

National Optical Astronomy Observatory
950 N. Cherry Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85719
Office 520.318.8285
Email: spompea@noao.edu

Last updated or reviewed September 27, 2017.