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Inspiring Wonder With Weightlessness
08.09.11
 
A man floats near a raw egg cracked inside a glovebox

A Warren Tech teacher examines what happens when a raw egg is introduced to microgravity. Image Credit: NASA

What happens when you crack a raw egg in an environment with almost no gravity? Teachers from Warren Tech, a vocational high school in Lakeland, Colo., weren't totally sure, so they proposed flying an experiment in microgravity through a unique opportunity run by the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program and sponsored by NASA's Teaching From Space, or TFS, office.

The roller-coasterlike flights that provide brief periods of weightlessness typically were offered only to college students and teachers affiliated with the Network of Educator Astronaut Teachers, National Science Teachers Association or NASA Explorer Schools. This summer, NASA gave the opportunity to all K-12 educators nationwide for the first time.

"Teaching From Space opened the opportunity to attract educators that may not have ever utilized NASA education resources and opportunities," said Matt Keil, TFS Lead Education Specialist. "The objective is to hook the teachers and expose them to the plethora of free resources and opportunities that NASA offers to educators and students."

Two women float near an experiment inside an airplane

Portland Public School district educators Jennifer Kelley (left) and LaShawn Lee test their "Cartesian Divers" experiment in microgravity. Image Credit: NASA

NASA Associate Administrator for Education Leland Melvin visited during the flight week to help share information about NASA's unique content with educators.

"One of the problems right now is that people aren’t inspired," Melvin said. "How can you inspire students if you're not inspired yourself? It starts in the trenches with teachers."

Teacher experiments that flew during the week ran the gamut of creativity and inventiveness, all with the goal of bringing the research back to the classroom to excite students about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. The experience was also a great way to show them how the skills they're learning in school directly translate to knowledge than can be used in the real world.

"Part of it is realizing the unknown," said Kumar Garg, a policy analyst with the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy, who also visited during flight week to see firsthand how NASA is bringing space to the classroom. "For kids, that's actually really exciting."

The Warren Tech team devised the egg-cracking experiment to test surface tension and examine how something that students perceive as blurring the lines between a liquid and a solid would react in microgravity.

A group of people look at an experiment on a table

Teachers from Clear Lake Intermediate in Houston display their experiment during the Test Readiness Review process, which each team must pass in order to fly. Image Credit: NASA

When they cracked the egg in the microgravity environment, it stayed inside the shell, even when held upside down. The egg had to physically be removed from the shell so that the team could take a look at how it behaved in the air.

"It looked like a little planet," said David Bochmann, a culinary teacher at the vocational school. "It formed a little ball. It was amazing."

Bochmann plans to use the experiment to teach students how scientific principles and reactions alter the properties of food.

A team of teachers and principals from across the Portland, Ore., public school district devised an experiment that would help explain physical principles to a range of students, from kindergarteners to middle schoolers.

"We spent numerous hours meeting after school and on weekends," said LaShawn Lee, principal at Faubion Elementary School. "We did all the brainstorming to find a topic that we knew K-8 teachers could use."

They proposed an experiment that would help teach students about buoyancy, density and pressure. In their "Cartesian Divers" experiment, a piece of plastic straw was folded in half, and the ends were paper-clipped together. The diver was placed inside a plastic bottle filled to the brim with water. In flight, the teachers squeezed the bottle to exert pressure on the diver and examined how it moved to the top or bottom and at what speed, depending on the gravitational environment. The materials used in the experiment were also affordable. Soon, students in Portland will build and reproduce the experiment at home to investigate the properties on Earth.

The reduced-gravity flight wasn't the only opportunity for educators during their visit. Teachers built upon their networks by discussing how they use STEM curricula in their schools. During a talk by a spacesuit engineer, teachers began to think about creative space-related examples they could give students to explore with mathematics and science problem sets.

"We looked at each other and said, 'We can make problems out of that,'" said Amy Watkins, a seventh-grade mathematics teacher at Clear Lake Intermediate who participated in the program.

"NASA has unique assets that no one else has," Melvin said. "We can help translate that to give students their own experiences."


Related Resources:
› NASA's Teaching From Space Office

 
 
Rachel Kraft/NASA's Johnson Space Center Public Affairs Office