Floating science teachers inspire students

32,000 FEET ABOVE SOUTHERN NEW MEXICO — Gravitational forces pinned adrenalin-pumped science teachers flat on their backs on floor mats aboard a steeply climbing Boeing 727.

And then as the jet crested, its nose beginning to fall, a brief sense of panic changed to elation as the teachers floated freely. Whoops of joy and laughter filled the padded cabin. The discombobulated men and women flapped arms and bicycled legs in futile attempts to stay upright.

The 30 science teachers from New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Texas were having the experience of their careers on the parabolic flight over southern New Mexico that simulated gravitational pull on the moon and Mars — and zero gravity.

After about 30 seconds, the teachers were warned to point their feet toward the floor. The handstands, Superman flights and midair flips came to an abrupt halt as gravity returned with the jetliner's next steep ascent.

Despite becoming lightheaded and nauseous toward the end of about a dozen 30-second intervals of weightlessness, Tracey Dodrill, who teaches 7th and 8th grade science at Mountainside Middle School in Scottsdale, Ariz., called the experience "absolutely amazing."

"It's really a change to your body and your system because you're experiencing something you've never experienced. I can't wait to go back and tell my kids."

That's exactly what the flight's sponsor, Northrop Grumman Corp., wants to hear. The company hopes the flights will excite the teachers and in turn inspire their students about future careers in science. A new tool in the teachers' kits will be the video of the flight, showing them conducting experiments in zero gravity.

Northrop Grumman is just one among many companies — Exxon Mobile Corp., Honeywell International Inc., Merck & Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. to name a few — and government entities, such as the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency, providing hands-on experiences for science teachers in elementary and secondary schools.

Cheryl Horn, program manager for Weightless Flights of Discovery at the Northrop Grumman Foundation, said more than 1,000 educators from 20 states have taken the flights since since 2006.

With increased awareness of global economic competition, science programs to train teachers are increasing, said Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.

Companies "look at it as a work force issue," Eberle said. "Just to stay competitive, they want to have the best educated work force that they can get."

Several executives said a report by the National Academy of Sciences released in October 2005 alarmed them enough to do more to train science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, teachers, who will encourage their students to pursue such careers.

"We aren't exciting enough young people compared to the rest of the nations in the world," said Truman Bell, senior program officer for education and diversity for Exxon Mobile Corp. "I'm getting very good employees. I'm concerned where those employees are going to come from 20 years from now."

The National Academy of Sciences report painted a dismal picture of how the United States compares with other countries in science, math and technology. Countries like China and India, because of the size of their populations, are producing more scientists than the United States.

The report also quotes a 2003 study that showed American 15-year-olds scored 19th in science literacy and 24th in math when compared with their counterparts in 49 industrialized countries.

The United States also relies heavily on foreign talent. Of the 1,600 post-doctoral employees at the national laboratories, about 60 percent are foreign citizens, said Bill Valdez, director of Department of Energy's workforce development office.

In the past, many foreign students trained at U.S. universities remained in America. But as Asia and the Middle East have developed, "what is unusual is that those students are now going home," Valdez said.

Getting more U.S. students interested in STEM careers will "build a bigger base of U.S. citizens who will make up for that loss of foreign talent that we used to count on," he said.

The National Academy of Sciences report recommended strengthening the skills of 250,000 elementary and secondary teachers through training and programs at summer institutes and through master's programs.

Norm Augustine, former chief executive at Lockheed Martin Corp. who was chairman of the committee that produced the report, said its recommendations got a lukewarm reception in Congress when it came to funding, but private companies and local governments heeded the call.

Teachers can now go to Space Academy for Educators, a version of Space Camp for teachers. They can work alongside climate researchers at a national laboratory and help collect data for real-time experiments involving students in the classroom. Other programs pair teachers with polar researchers in Alaska or maritime researchers at sea.

Al Whitaker, spokesman for the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., host of the Space Academy, said donations this fiscal year from private companies have risen 20 percent compared to the last fiscal year, allowing more teachers and students to attend.

No question such programs are fun, but are they effective?

Northrop Grumman says yes. In an online survey from teachers who participated in the first three years of the weightless flights, almost 78 percent of their students have expressed interest in pursuing science- or math-related careers.

Eberle says such programs serve an important function for teachers.

"The thing that's so hard in a classroom that's a challenge for the teachers is to really help them communicate to students that there's really a wonderment and an excitement to science," Eberle said.

Dodrill seems to have found the key. The day after the Zero Gravity flight, she found herself lying on her classroom floor in her navy blue flight suit as her students looked down at her and peppered her with questions about her experience.

The students already are asking her about careers in space and technology.

"Doing the Weightless Flights of Discovery inspired me as a teacher to look above and beyond what I do in the classroom," she said. "I've been able to show (the students) my experience. It does motivate them and get them excited."

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