Science

Teachers Take Flight to Inspire STEM Learning

September 16, 2011 5 min read
Math and science teachers experience near weightless conditions during a Weightless Flights of Discovery program on Sept. 12. Twenty-six teachers and two preservice teachers were aboard the flight sponsored by the Northrop Grumman Foundation.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

When Carrie E. Marcum showed up for school one day last week wearing a navy-blue flight suit with an American flag emblazoned on her left sleeve, she didn’t exactly look the part of a teacher.

The outfit probably didn’t strike most of her 8th grade science students as terribly surprising, however. After all, the day before, their teacher from Spring Mills Middle School in Martinsburg, W.Va., was floating around the cabin of a specially modified Boeing 727 aircraft, getting a firsthand taste of the weightless experience astronauts go through when training for space missions.

“I always wanted to be an astronaut, so this is probably as close as I’m going to get,” Ms. Marcum said shortly before boarding the plane the previous day. “I am excited about sharing my experiences with my kids. ... They can’t wait for me to come back and show them videos and pictures.”

Ms. Marcum and 27 other middle school teachers—along with two college students working toward teaching degrees—took part last week in the Weightless Flights of Discovery program, launched in 2006 by the Northrop Grumman Foundation. Now wrapping up its sixth and final year, the program has enabled nearly 1,200 educators to experience the unearthly thrill of weightlessness. But the main goal is to get their students excited about the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

During a 2½-hour flight, the 727 underwent a series of parabolic arcs to create the experience, first, of gravity akin to that of Mars (about one-third normal body weight), then on the moon (one-sixth body weight), and finally weightlessness at near-zero gravity.

The teachers floated, they flipped, they bumped into the walls and ceiling. They even posed for photos like Superman flying.

They did their best to conduct simple experiments, such as testing how various liquids or a gyroscope would respond to the plane’s changing environment. But it wasn’t easy. The experience of weightlessness was disorienting, and each of the 12 episodes was brief, typically lasting about 25 seconds.

“I had no control of myself,” Ms. Marcum said after the flight. “Every time I tried to do something, I ended up floating upside down on the ceiling.”

‘The Next Generation’

The program sponsored by the Northrop Grumman Foundation—a philanthropy created and supported by the Falls Church, Va.-based aerospace and defense company—is among many U.S. efforts aimed at sparking greater student interest in the STEM fields. The initiatives reflect the view in policy and business circles that drawing more young people into those areas is an economic imperative to keep the United States competitive.

In a 2010 report, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology lamented not only “mediocre” achievement in the STEM fields by U.S. students, but also a “pervasive lack of interest” in the subjects.

The Northrop Grumman program, with 45 flights since 2006, has enabled STEM teachers from every state to fly, through a partnership with Zero Gravity Corp., a company based in Vienna, Va., that operates weightless flights.

In its final year, Northrop Grumman has scaled back the program, offering just two such flights.

At a briefing before the Sept. 12 flight, Sandra J. Evers-Manly, the president of the company’s foundation, explained the rationale for the weightless-flights program.

“It’s an opportunity for us to inspire young people, to get them excited about math and science,” she said. “We hope one day we’ll see some of those innovators at Northrop Grumman.”

This year, the foundation is providing about $750,000 for the program, which covers all travel costs for participants plus a teacher workshop. The foundation also supports other STEM education activities, including paying for teachers and students to attend Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.

A survey of 206 participants in the weightless flights found 92 percent reporting an increase in their students’ interest in science.

Teachers Defy Gravity

Math and science teachers talk about their experience in the Weightless Flights of Discovery program, launched by Northrop Grumman.
—Charles Borst/Education Week

Robert H. Tai, an associate professor of education at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, who studies how young people get interested in science, said he sees potential in this type of program.

Having an “extraordinary experience” such as taking a weightless flight, he suggested, is likely to have staying power with teachers and ripple effects with students.

“When corporations expose teachers to these experiences, it’s like a force multiplier” in reaching students, he said.

“If [educators] carry it with them to the classroom, as most teachers do, then I see this as potentially influencing hundreds, if not thousands, of students.”

The teachers on the recent flight were mindful of how the experience could help their students.

“I plan to bring it back to my students in enriching the lessons that I’ve taught for years on gravity, on the force of Earth, on satellites,” said Luis Gonzales, who teaches 8th grade science at Parkville Middle School & Center of Technology in Parkville, Md.

“I’m a math teacher, so we’re very excited about the parabolas,” said Carole Rehak, a 7th grade math teacher at Perry Hall Middle School in Baltimore County, Md.

‘Lifelong Learners’

Joyce Zupko, who teaches science at Sterling Middle School, in Sterling, Va., said she sees value in being a role model.

“We teach our children to be lifelong learners, and I think we’re trying to demonstrate that we are lifelong learners,” she said, “and we’re trying to get them excited about the possibilities” in science.

She also said the videos from the flight would be invaluable. “It’s one thing to say it, but these kids are 12. They need to see it.”

In anticipation of the voyage, Ms. Marcum, the West Virginia teacher, asked each of her five science classes to create a separate patch for her flight suit. One patch featured a patriot, the school mascot, along with images of the international space station and an asteroid in orbit around the mascot.

On her first day back at school, Ms. Marcum showed students video footage from the trip, including an image of her starting to float and of a viscosity experiment she conducted on board to see how various liquids would respond in different gravity environments.

“Today was one of those days that teachers dream about,” Ms. Marcum said, “being able to share such an unbelievable experience with my students and seeing them truly inspired and excited.”

Related Tags:

Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the GE Foundation, at www.ge.com/foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2011 edition of Education Week as Teachers Take Flight to Inspire STEM Learning


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Science Whitepaper
Growing STEM in American Education
Across America, many K12 school districts still lack the necessary resources to prioritize STEM curriculums, especially in underserved co...
Content provided by HP
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Science Whitepaper
The Benefits of Engineering for K–5 Students
Having engineering embedded in your K–5 science curriculum helps build collaboration and communication skills and gives students an oppor...
Content provided by Carolina Biological
Science Opinion Q&A Collections: Science Instruction
Eighty science educators answer 10 years' worth of questions about science instruction.
4 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Science Opinion Four Good Science Teaching Strategies & How to Use Them
Three science educators share their "go-to" teaching strategies, including encouraging student talk & implementing project-based learning.
11 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty