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.
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.”
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