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Virginia Journal of Education

Teaching Takes Wing

A Fairfax teacher ventures into zero gravity to bring math, science and technology alive for her students.

by Megan Seals

When I teach writing, I tell my students that the most important component of any great masterpiece is the hook. The opening: That great attention-grabber that ropes you in and makes you keep reading, watching or listening. After a while, I realized that this is also true of teaching. Teachers spend each and every day trying out various hooks to grab the attention of their students and make learning accessible. That’s why most of us went into this profession. We teach because we have a passion for finding a way to motivate students to love learning as much as we do.
As a fifth grade teacher, I have learned, unfortunately, that it’s sometimes difficult to motivate students in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). No longer are we producing the number of engineers and technicians needed to fulfill the demands of the market. Sadly, it’s around fifth grade that many students lose interest in science and math.

I believe that what’s missing is inspiration. We need a lot more things that entice students to learn more about the world around them. Why should they care about science? Math? Technology? Our culture does not value these academic qualities. Not only are professional athletes paid more than scientists, but also we’ve seen that you have a better chance of playing professional basketball than flying in space. This is sending the message to students that science and math are simply not important.

Fortunately, last March I was given the opportunity to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime experience that simultaneously provided me with the ultimate educational hook: I got to fly.

I’m very interested in space and space flight and over the past five years, I’ve tried to promote space education through a college internship with NASA and, more importantly, the private space industry. I’ve aided with the development of the new Teachers in Space program, which recently selected seven teachers to participate in spaceflight training and suborbital space flights with commercial companies, and serve on the Board of Directors for the Space Frontier Foundation.  Because of this, Virginia State Senator William Wampler nominated me to participate in a zero gravity flight as part of a state initiative to promote STEM education. The flight was sponsored by the Space Frontier Foundation, Teachers in Space and ZeroG, the company that provided the flight.

ZeroG Corporation provides parabolic spaceflight training similar to the weightless flight experience used by NASA to train astronauts. The company has modified a Boeing 727 jet by removing the overhead compartments and all but 30 or 40 of the passenger seats. The rest of the plane has been lined with a thin rubber material, and the floor is covered with what resembles a white gymnastics mat. During the flight, the jet performs a series of parabolic arcs to create a weightless environment. Our trip consisted of fifteen parabolas. Three of these arcs were used to simulate lunar gravity (one-sixth Earth gravity) and Martian gravity (one-third Earth gravity). The other 12 provide the opportunity to experience true “weightlessness.”
The first step was training at a Northern Virginia hotel, where I arrived a bit unsure about what to expect. While I had obsessively researched previous flights, I knew that I was about to experience something entirely new. ZeroG sometimes has educational flights, but I was flying on a commercial trip with 35 passengers, most of which had purchased the $5,000 tickets themselves. We were given a flight suit and divided into three “teams,” with whom we would spend the duration of the flight. Each team had a coach who trained us in what to expect during the trip. After watching a series of training videos and eating a “flight-friendly breakfast,” we boarded a shuttle to Dulles Airport to begin our journey.

After loading the jet, (and luckily avoiding the long security lines at Dulles), we were instructed to store our shoes in a special compartment and adorn the stylish ZeroG socks. During takeoff, we were to sit in our seats as if we were on any traditional commercial flight.  However, I soon realized, this flight was far from ordinary. The “flight attendants” soon began a comical rendition of the safety demonstration, and any initial fears that I had of the impending “controlled freefalls” quickly vanished. Once the jet reached its designated airspace, we were instructed to leave our seats and find our designated flight area.

Finally, it was time: The captain announced that we were about to begin our first parabola, which would simulate Martian gravity. As we began the steep incline, passengers laid on their backs, due to the 1.8G of force that we were experiencing. It felt very heavy, similar to a roller coaster, in that it was difficult to lift your head or hands at this time (which I was repeatedly told not to do, because my curious mind felt the need to see what was happening around me). Finally, I felt my body become lighter. We rolled onto our stomachs and began performing the most amazing push-ups ever. I could push off the ground and propel my body into the air with minimal effort! After about 30 seconds of this sensation, we heard “Feet down, coming out.” This was our signal to assume the previous position on the ground. The next two parabolas created lunar gravity. Immediately, I could tell a major difference from the first parabola. I could push my body off of the ground almost to the ceiling with one finger. We found this highly entertaining, as we began doing the “moon walk” throughout the cabin.

After the first three parabolas, we were all ready for the actual weightless experience to begin.  As I lay on my back feeling the pressure of the heavy gravity associated with a climb, I suddenly felt my body literally levitate off of the ground. It felt similar to the feeling at the top of a roller coaster when your body lifts out of the seat, only I kept going into the ceiling. Nothing could have possibly prepared me for this moment. I had absolutely no idea how to maneuver in this setting, and often found myself upside down when I meant to be right side up. My natural inclination was to “swim,” yet without the water resistance, I simply found myself flailing mid-air. I had never truly appreciated the force of gravity, and being without it is without a doubt the most exhilarating experience I have ever had. I could do somersaults with no effort, and even fly! I was supposed to conduct three experiments during the flight, but found myself reduced to the mindset of a child. Forcing myself to work instead of merely play took a great amount of willpower, especially considering I was the only teacher onboard. However, I did use a density jar to show the separation of liquids, and learned that playing basketball in space with a small hoop is borderline impossible. We even were able to fly through the air catching water bubbles in our mouths.

The only unfortunate incident was when I tried to throw in one additional “superman” after the captain announced “Feet down, coming out.” The jarring fall that ensued when the 1.8G force hit while I was mid-air gave me a true understanding of the force of gravity, as I had quite the plunge back to reality. Needless to say, the only thing I wish I could change about this experience is to have been able to continue flying for the rest of the day! After our last parabola, we sat around sharing funny stories and memories in true sleep-away camp fashion, and realized that we could never truly articulate the feeling of weightlessness to friends and family members who weren’t on the flight.

The most exciting part of this experience, however, was being able to bring it back into the classroom. My students were very excited and could not wait to see videos and pictures. The impact in the school environment is truly phenomenal, and the possibilities for classroom use are endless. Beyond the obvious scientific applications, I have been able to use the flight for countless language arts and math lessons, and have yet to truly explore all the avenues in which this can be translated into the curriculum. After the flight, our school guidance counselor informed me that during Career Week, she suddenly had many students exclaiming that they wanted to be astronauts, because if Ms. Seals can do it, they can, too. And I even had a fifth grade girl announce during the video, “Wow, now I definitely want to work for NASA.”

Currently, we are working towards providing suborbital spaceflights for teachers through the Teachers in Space project, and ZeroG and Northrup Grumman continue to fly teachers on these zero gravity flights. We are also seeking foundations and companies willing to fund even more zero-gravity flights so that hundreds and thousands of students may be inspired by teachers who are willing to go to the ends of the earth and back, literally, to get kids excited about learning again. Because of my flight, schools and organizations in my hometown, Big Stone Gap, VA, have begun raising money for flights for teachers from the southwestern part of the state.

When students see their own teachers participate in spaceflight training, not only does it make space seem more attainable and relevant, but it’s easier for teachers to communicate the idea that this is their future, and they will be deciding how we move forward into the new frontier. Let’s help students begin to look toward the future again and realize that they are in control of how we progress as a nation.

Seals, a member of the Fairfax Education Association, teaches fifth grade at Floris Elementary School.



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