The truth about UFOs is out there, and US students are trying to find it
Teachers across the US are taking advantage of the government’s report on UFOs to engage students with science
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 the science teacher will be spending the summer. And with the federal government’s report on “unidentified aerial phenomena” – or UAPs – expected to be released in coming weeks, they will have new grainy videos to analyze and debate.
When Donald Trump signed a $2.3tn funding bill in December, educators were eye-balling the $54bn in relief funds included for school reopening. But tucked into the more than 5,500 pages of legislative text was a Senator Marco Rubio-sponsored provision directing naval intelligence to uncover what they have 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 US. 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.
According to the New York Times, senior Biden administration officials briefed on the report were told intelligence authorities have found no evidence that the strange movements were alien spacecraft – but they apparently did not rule it out.
The upcoming release of the report is perfectly timed for the search-for-extraterrestrial-intelligence unit Black teaches each summer at New Haven school, a private boarding school for girls in Saratoga Springs, Utah. He hooks students with tales of close encounters and uses hands-on projects and 3D 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 one by 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.
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,” said Dennis Gavrilenko, a senior in Adkins’s astronomy and space exploration course this year. But Gavrilenko adds that he now awaits “solid evidence to support aliens before I truly believe they are real”.
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 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 addressing the events at Malmstrom. That’s when Knuth became convinced. 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.
In the final days of each school year, he holds an ET 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 have 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”.
‘The kids get into it’
Teachers who touch on UFOs might find a place for the topic when they introduce students to the solar system in elementary school. 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 an 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 a fun way for students to learn how to collect evidence, evaluate online sources and interact with scientists.
In high school, standalone astronomy classes aren’t common and are typically offered as electives. But after Alec Johnson, a teacher at Morgan county high school in central Georgia, led a school trip to watch the solar eclipse in 2017, his students 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 sharing previously unreleased footage and photos from the government’s report with his students.
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.
This report was first published by the 74, a non-profit, non-partisan news site covering education in America