Forty teachers were doing somersaults on June 24 trying to get their students interested in science curriculum topics.
These intrepid educators had the opportunity to experience first-hand how math, science, and engineering principles can affect human activities in a weightless, or low-gravity, space environment through a new program from Northrop Grumman Corp. The program, called “Weightless Flights of Discovery,” kicked off at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.
Designed to help educators inspire and nurture student interest in technical or scientific careers, the program will involve 240 teachers from all 50 states and at least 15 countries. It includes hands-on science workshops and the opportunity to participate in a parabolic, or “zero-gravity,” aircraft flight that creates temporary weightlessness, comparable to what humans would experience during space travel to the moon or Mars. The parabolic flight is similar to how astronauts train for space flight.
Forty teachers took part in the inaugural program workshop, held June 10 at Kennedy Space Center. The program’s first two parabolic flights, which included approximately 20 teachers per flight, took place on June 24.
“The Northrop Grumman Weightless Flights of Discovery educators’ program is part of the company’s commitment to help NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and the nation create the well-educated, technically trained workforce needed to undertake and sustain a successful human space exploration program,” said Tom Vice, vice president for business development at Northrop Grumman’s Integrated Systems sector.
The program also serves as a vehicle to spark student interest in pursuing careers in other scientific and technical fields, a key component of the American Competitiveness Initiative introduced by President Bush in his 2006 State of the Union address, Vice added.
Zero-gravity flights are performed in dedicated airspace 100 miles long by 10 miles wide. Specially trained pilots fly the aircraft in a series of maneuvers called parabolas, or arcs, between the altitudes of 24,000 and 32,000 feet. At the beginning of each parabola, the aircraft climbs at a 45-degree angle. At the top of the parabola, the aircraft is “pushed over” into a controlled descent that creates a temporary zero-gravity environment.
The teacher flights include approximately 15 parabolas ranging from low-gravity environments typical of the moon (one-sixth the force of Earth’s gravity, or G) or Mars (one-third G) to complete weightlessness. At the end of each “weightless” period, which lasts approximately 30 seconds, the aircraft is gradually pulled out of the descent, reestablishing a more normal gravity environment inside the plane.
Northrop Grumman is sponsoring the Weightless Flights of Discovery program along with Zero Gravity Corp. (ZERO-G), which developed and will conduct the teacher workshops and parabolic flights in five U.S. metropolitan areas over the course of the summer. The program will include five workshops and 12 flights in all.
Regional sponsors in each area will work with Northrop Grumman, ZERO-G, and state space, education, and government agencies to select teachers to participate in the program. NASA, the National Science Teachers Association, and ZERO-G developed the educational workshops that use space exploration as a focal point to teach science, technology, engineering, and mathematics topics.
During the workshops, teachers receive pre-flight training in weightlessness and experiment design, where they learn how astronauts and scientists can work in lunar, Martian, and zero-gravity environments. They also learn how to relate zero-gravity experiments to science, engineering, technology, and mathematics curriculum development.
On flight day, teachers conduct their experiments on board ZERO-G’s specially modified, FAA-approved aircraft, G-FORCE ONE. After the flight, teachers are involved in a debriefing where they evaluate the process and discuss outcomes of the flight and curriculum plans. The Florida Space Research Institute, a state research organization, is helping to fund the program, and America Online (AOL) is hosting an interactive web site that covers it. Students and space enthusiasts can visit the site throughout the summer for online coverage of the flight program, including videos of teachers in zero-gravity action, photo galleries, and fast facts about zero gravity. Visitors also can read about the teachers selected for the flights.
The experiments conducted by teachers on the weightless flights covered applications of Newtonian science. For example, in an oil-water density test, oil and colored water were placed in a bottle, and the teachers observed the rate at which the two liquids separated at various levels of gravity. During zero-gravity conditions, the two liquids did not separate noticeably. When gravity conditions increased to twice the Earth’s gravity, they observed a rapid separation of the liquid mixture into distinct water and oil layers.
Participating teachers will be taking their test results, in-flight records, and first-hand experiences back to school in August to share with their students.
Cathy Hardesty, an algebra and eighth-grade science teacher at Hill-Gustat Middle School in Sebring, Fla., conducted experiments during a weightless flight with ZERO-G earlier this year. She said the chance to watch a video of her experiments, demonstrating Newtonian principles in action, proved invaluable to her students’ understanding of–and interest in–physics.
“The Northrop Grumman program is sure to have a dramatic effect on students and their comprehension of basic scientific concepts,” said Hardesty, who recently was named teacher of the year for her school, district, and region. “No textbook, not even the greatest science teachers of all time, can really open a student’s eyes wide to principles such as Newton’s laws of motion. For my students to see their own teacher on video conducting experiments in zero gravity lets them know that there are no limits to what they can do, including becoming a scientist or engineer.”
Additional teacher workshops and parabolic flights for the Northrop Grumman Weightless Flights of Discovery program are planned for Huntsville, Ala., in July; San Diego in August; and Cleveland and Washington, D.C., in September. The next teacher workshops are scheduled for the week of July 23 in Huntsville, with corresponding zero-gravity flights planned for July 28-29.
AOL’s Northrop Grumman Weightless Flights of Discovery page