A Case of NASA's Domino Effect
On a memorable day in 1992, Eileen Poling, a teacher from West Virginia, was casually flipping through a magazine when something special caught her eye. A contest, sponsored by the U.S. Space Foundation, offered a chance to visit the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., and learn more about space.

Eileen Poling holds a toy with long green hair as she floats inside of an airplane

One of the experiments that Poling conducted on the microgravity flight involved seeing if the hair on Hector, her students' stuffed animal, would be affected by the change in gravity. Poling gives the official results: "Hector reacted as predicted. His hair did rise to the occasion!" Image Credit: Zero-G

Poling applied, and little did she know that this workshop would spiral into an intricate web of NASA involvement. Every year since that class 15 years ago, Poling has taken part in internships and attended conferences, workshops and meetings across the nation to satisfy her insatiable thirst for new scientific adventures.

Like many teachers, Poling has become a part of the NASA "domino effect." Once an interest in science sparks, a chain reaction occurs and opportunities for further science inquiry emerge from all directions.

Surprisingly, Poling is not even a science teacher. She has taught a variety of subjects as a teacher for the gifted for more than 21 years. According to Poling, that fact doesn't stop her from including science in the curriculum.

"I want to inspire my students. Whether they are gifted in mathematics or English, you can pull them all together with space themes," she explained.

Poling began using NASA in her classroom when she joined the Students' Cloud Observations On-Line, or S'COOL, project, which encourages students to send cloud observations to NASA to help validate satellite data. By working closely with the S'COOL team, Poling learned about a new way to incorporate NASA into her teaching.

In 2004, Poling was selected to attend the MY NASA DATA workshop at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. There she learned how to integrate authentic NASA data microsets into lesson plans by using a Live Access Server. The workshop, led by a team of outreach specialists, gave Poling and other teachers from around the nation the resources to get students excited about science.

"The lessons on that site are wonderful," says Poling. "I use them frequently."

The lessons were so compelling that after attending the workshop, Poling decided to go back again in 2005, this time as an ambassador for the program. But MY NASA DATA isn't the only project for which Poling is an ambassador.

She also serves as a Solar System Ambassador, which is part of a public outreach program designed to work with motivated volunteers across the nation. These volunteers communicate the excitement of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory's space exploration missions and information about recent discoveries to people in their local communities.

Eileen Poling and Katya Denisova float inside of an airplane

Poling and a fellow teacher, Katya Denisova, experience the weightless effects of microgravity at the peak of one of the flight parabolas. Poling explains the overall experience as "exciting, fantastic, exhilarating, incredible, euphoric and fun!" Image Credit: Zero-G

During her time as a Solar System Ambassador, Poling learned about the NASA Explorer Schools Project. She applied as the lead teacher, and Tucker Valley Elementary Middle School was selected as the second school in West Virginia to be a NASA Explorer School.

"The school received video teleconferencing equipment, and it is so great. We were able to let fourth graders talk to a scientist who studies dinosaur fossils. Teachers can also use it to talk to other teachers. It has changed our community," says Poling.

The most recent domino to fall into place for Poling is her participation in a microgravity flight sponsored by the Northrop Grumman Foundation as a way to inspire educators about teaching science. She had the rare opportunity to fly on a jet that is much like NASA's "Weightless Wonder" to experience temporary weightlessness. "My feet haven't touched the ground since I found out," laughs Polling, who was clearly excited about the trip.

The teachers were required to conduct experiments to test Newton's Laws of Motion during the 25-second periods that they are weightless. Naturally, Poling's experiment was aimed at keeping her students enthusiastic. When the pilot was reaching the peak of his parabola flight path between the altitudes of 24,000 and 32,000 feet, Poling and two other teachers attempted a jump through a hula-hoop. The trick was caught on camera, allowing the experience to be shared with her students.

"It was, by far, one of the best things I have ever experienced in my life! It was exciting, fantastic, exhilarating, incredible, euphoric and fun," exclaimed Poling after the flight.

As Poling has found, a plethora of NASA opportunities are out there waiting to give educators lifelong experiences. "This trip has even inspired our school's health teacher, who is now looking into the effects of microgravity on the human body," explains Poling.

If one thing is for sure, it is the effect of a passion for science on an individual's life. When it comes to bringing science exploration into the classroom, Poling has one piece of advice. "Be willing to go anywhere and do anything."

Related Resources
NASA's S'COOL Project   →
MY NASA DATA Project   →
NASA Explorer Schools   →
JPL Solar System Ambassadors   →
NASA's Reduced Gravity Research Program   →

Jennifer Collings/LaRC