"Weightless" teachers' microgravity experiences inspire renewed student enthusiasm for math, science
|McKenna-Wilson (left) and Williams (right) with water droplets on their zero-gravity flight|
The well-organized, gravity-driven worlds of three Baltimore County middle school science teachers were turned upside down on Saturday, September 30, 2006, as they participated in Northrop Grumman Corporation’s inaugural Weightless Flights of Discovery program.
The Baltimore County teachers – Heather Williams and Carrie McKenna-Wilson of Arbutus Middle School and Ruth Akers of Catonsville Middle School – were among 40 distinguished teachers from the greater Baltimore-Washington area to participate in the final pair of a dozen parabolic (or "zero gravity") flights that Northrop Grumman sponsored this summer to help teachers inspire students to pursue technical or scientific fields related to space exploration.
The two-hour flights off the coast of Atlantic City, New Jersey, followed a hands-on science workshop held September 23 at a hotel near Dulles International Airport, where teachers learned the principles of microgravity. During the workshops, the teachers also received assistance in developing experiments they conducted during the flights to show how math, science and engineering principles apply to weightless space environments. The weightless flights are similar to training astronauts receive prior to space flight.
“I had always wondered how astronauts feel in space,” Akers says. “This was a chance of a lifetime experience, and it is one that I am grateful to have been a part of.”
McKenna-Wilson says that there are times during the flight, “when you are at lunar gravity – about 1/6 your weight – and you feel like a superhero, gliding through the air, doing flips, doing push-ups with other people on your back” and other times “for example at zero gravity, when you have no control.”
The teachers took a number of experiments on the flight, including some suggested by students. “One student suggested that we take along Twizzlers [candy] to see if we could get them to hang in the air while we used them to spell out words,” Willams explains. “We tried but the Twizzlers just kept floating away.”
Other experiments the Arbutus teachers took on board included one using pencils and magnets to look at the force of repulsion and gravity and another to study the movement of water.
"Our goal with the Weightless Flights of Discovery program has been to provide teachers and their students with a renewed enthusiasm for the learning process, and show them that technical subjects are not only entertaining, but downright interesting," said Tom Vice, vice president for business development for Northrop Grumman's Integrated Systems sector. "From the initial feedback we've received, we're confident that we've given the next generation of space explorers a flying head start on learning that math and science are not only fun, but cool. We expect that many of them will go on to make significant technical contributions to the nation's future and its global competitiveness."
|Williams (left) and McKenna-Wilson (right) hold materials used in experiment on gravity, magnets, and repulsion.|
According to the teachers who participated, the program is already working. “All of our students want to be astronauts now,” McKenna-Wilson says. Akers adds, “This experience has my 6th grade students wanting to know more about space. If it encourages students to pursue their dreams, it was worth it.”
Since the program's launch in June, the Northrop Grumman Weightless Flights of Discovery program has helped to inspire an estimated 10,000 students worldwide by giving more than 250 teachers from all 50 states, five U.S. territories and 24 countries the opportunity to experiment with scientific and engineering principles in a truly weightless environment.
Northrop Grumman serves as the major sponsor for the Weightless Flights of Discovery program, which was developed and executed by the Zero Gravity Corporation. The five-city national tour began in late June at Kennedy Space Center, Fla. with subsequent touch downs in Huntsville, Ala., San Diego and Cleveland. Following the flights, teachers received videotape and photography of their flight experience to use as teaching tools in the classroom.
In addition to underwriting the costs of the workshops and weightless flights, Northrop Grumman also provided a $250 grant to each of the U.S. teachers involved in the program. The grants were made by the Northrop Grumman Foundation.
Williams and McKenna-Wilson were invited to participate in the program following their summer 2006 participation in Northrop Grumman’s TEAACH – Teachers and Engineers for Academic Achievement – program. Along with Arbutus Middle School technology teacher Roger Beechener (who was not available to participate in the Weightless Flight of Discovery), the two women spent four days at Northrop Grumman’s Electronic Systems sector. The program allows teachers to work with Northrop Grumman employees learning more about engineering and science professions and new ways to integrate concepts into their lessons. “We saw the work the engineers do from making the radars for the cockpits of planes to the smallest of microscopic chips,” Williams says. “And we worked with them to design projects that we can do with our students to teach various scientific principles.”
For Akers, teaching is a second career. “I left a job at a small biotech company to teach science,” she explains. “After two years teaching science, I discovered the world of technology education. This field – technology education – seeks to support students in becoming technologically literate and brings together science, mathematics, engineering, and technology, supporting and reinforcing concepts in the academic areas.”
Story by Diana Spencer, communications officer. Photos courtesy of Northrop Grumman.