Reaching for the sky

Published 8:32 pm Monday, March 19, 2012

Mack Benn Jr. Elementary School teachers Elizabeth Petry, Megan Farabaugh and Catherine Pichon experience weightlessness during a NASA Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program. Mack Benn Jr. was one of just 14 schools selected nationwide for the five-day program at Johnson Space Center, Houston, in February.

Weightlessness is an experience three Mack Benn Jr. Elementary School educators won’t easily forget after recently returning to Earth from a rare opportunity.

One of them, fifth grade teacher Catherine Pichon, described the 20 seconds of gravitational relief, thanks to NASA’s Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program, as “something I will never forget.”

Mack Benn, a NASA Explorer School, was one of just 14 schools selected nationwide for the five-day program at Johnson Space Center, Houston, in February. Most of those 14 were middle and high schools, Pichon said.

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The teams performed science experiments aboard a modified aircraft that produces weightlessness for about 20 seconds at a time as it climbs steeply before freefalling — known as flying “parabolas” — over the Gulf of Mexico.

Data from the experiments was compared with results from the same experiments repeated with children back in the classroom.

“We were investigating how gravity affects objects where we are now, and up in space,” Pichon said.

Students launched ball bearings in one experiment, which may have made up for not being able to join their teachers into near-weightlessness.

“They wanted to go, but they were so excited that we were going,” Pichon said.

“When we were video conferencing (with students from the aircraft), it was just so surreal. Then, when we came back and showed them the pictures, they were just having a ball with that.”

Another experiment involved hitting weights suspended in canisters to see how many times they would travel back and forth, and at what speed. Students predicted how the results would change in low gravity.

“They were very interested in whether their predictions were correct,” Pichon said.

A series of practice runs before the actual flight helped build the anticipation.

“When we actually did our first parabola, it was crazy,” Pichon said. None of us were able to do an actual experiment during the first parabola, because you have to get your body used to it. Then, you have a job to do, and you want to get the results for the kids to work on.”

Two other Mack Benn educators, Megan Farabaugh and Elizabeth Petry, were also instrumental in securing the school’s involvement in the reduced-gravity program.

According to NASA, Explorer Schools inspire students to pursue careers in science, engineering and other technical fields.

The program gives educators in grades four through 12 access to NASA’s people, missions, research and facilities, and it provides free classroom materials to help teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“We are excited that our program provides once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to inspire the teachers of budding scientists and engineers,” Reduced Gravity Education in Flight Program Manager Doug Goforth said.

“Through collaborative planning and teamwork, they gain useful skills that they can share with the students.”

Improving science- and math-based education is critical in meeting skill gaps in America, experts say.