The Ups and Downs of Science Education
Conducting a science experiment in microgravity was exciting for sixth-grade science teacher Mitch Rorris. Now his students in Sioux City, Iowa, are seeing his enthusiasm and feeling a little of it themselves.
"The experience gets me fired up," Rorris said. "It really gets me going again. When the kids see an instructor that's really into it, it spreads."
Image to left: Ryan Reinking and Mitch Rorris work with their experiment during a reduced-gravity moment on NASA's Weightless Wonder. Credit: NASA
The Sioux City Community School District-- which includes Sioux City's North, East and West middle schools -- is one of 20 NASA Explorer School teams that participated in NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities in February. The project is coordinated by the NASA Explorer School project and the Reduced Gravity Research Program at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The project provides students and educators with the opportunity to design, build and conduct experiments on NASA's "Weightless Wonder."
But the project does more than that -- it excites participants about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.
The NASA Explorer Schools project promotes the incorporation of NASA content into the classroom to enhance instruction in STEM disciplines. One of the many ways it does that is through opportunities such as the reduced-gravity flights. By flying a parabolic arc, the Weightless Wonder, a modified McDonnell Douglas DC-9 aircraft, enables occupants to experience microgravity for 18 to 25 seconds. To produce each parabola, the C-9 will make a steep climb followed by an equally steep dive. During the climb, flyers will experience 1.8 g's. This process is done repeatedly during the flight.
Rorris said NASA opportunities like the reduced-gravity flights have helped him relate to his students. "It gives you a really strong sense of you being a new learner, what your kids must feel, and the frustrations they have with the curriculum that we're learning right now," Rorris said. "So as I stop and look at some of the problems the kids are having right now, I'm empathetic. You forget what it's like to be 11, 12 years old. They struggle when they do research, and when you get to do these things, you are a learner, too."
Sioux City students' experiment tested the effect of microgravity on convection, the movement of currents within a liquid or gas. The experiment consisted of two cylinders -- one heated and one cooled. A connecting tube allowed air to flow between the cylinders.
The convection experiment is part of the sixth-grade science curriculum, but Sioux City students modified it for microgravity. In the classroom experiment, students use ice to cool the air and hot water to heat it. The experiment for NASA used dry ice to make the air even colder and a light bulb to produce heat.
Students hypothesized that with increased gravity, the air would slow down and compress at the bottom of the chamber. As the gravitational forces dropped, the air would release and spring upward.
"Sure enough," Rorris said, "there's an indication that that's pretty much what happened. It's only one test ... but it indicates that the kids were right."
Sioux City's flight team included Rorris, sixth-grade teachers Julie Sweeney and Anthony Gaul, and eighth-grade science teacher Ryan Reinking.
While Iowa students learned how air moves in microgravity, students at two other NASA Explorer Schools explored the movement of liquids. One team from Robert L. Ford School in Lynn, Mass., wanted to know how water droplets react in microgravity. Do they bounce off each other, merge into one large water droplet, or break into many smaller water droplets?
The school's eighth-grade students partnered with General Electric to build a collision chamber. Inside the chamber, two nozzles ejected the water toward each other. Pumps controlled the amount and velocity of the water.
On the experiment's first flight, Ford teachers David Romanowski and Jennifer McCarthy encountered problems. "Everything was going well for the first five or six parabolas," Romanowski said. "Then we noticed a problem with the cameras. They had stopped taking pictures. Then the water stopped shooting out of the chamber. The pumps weren't working. We tried to troubleshoot the problem in the next eight to ten parabolas, but had no luck."
After landing, they discovered the problem was a loose washer. "When we opened up the electrical panel, we saw the tiniest little washer sitting under an electrical contact," Romanowski said. "We came to the conclusion that the washer caused a short circuit, like blowing a fuse."
Image to left: Jennifer McCarthy looks for water droplet interactions in an experiment chamber built by students at Robert L. Ford School. Credit: NASA
On the second flight, the experiment worked well, but the cameras didn't capture clear photos of the water droplets' interactions. Ford vice-principal Barbara Kelly and seventh-grade science teacher Andrea Ogles observed the experiment, but couldn't tell for certain if the water droplets merged or bounced when they collided. "But they did form almost bubble shapes, and they would float around and float to the top and pop just like a bubble," McCarthy said.
The team turned its technical difficulties into a lesson about the hard knocks of science. The students reviewed design control in engineering and the importance of contingency plans for unexpected problems. The washer that caused the short circuit is on display as a reminder of how even the smallest piece can impact the whole experiment.
"We were disappointed when that happened, but there's a lot to learn otherwise," Romanowski said. "We really took the experiment well beyond the water collisions and brought it in at all levels of the classroom."
Other members of the Ford team were principal Claire Crane and teachers Paula Muller and Shannon Stevens.
How water acts in space was also of interest to Chicago students at Kilmer Elementary School. Their experiment analyzed the effects of increased and reduced gravity on jars of liquids of varying densities.
Kilmer science teacher Shara Fata said her first- through sixth-grade students suggested more than 30 liquids for the experiment. A school-wide vote narrowed it down to eight -- water, oobleck, dish soap, cola, oil, syrup, oil and water, and honey. Students conducted the experiment in their classroom first, turning over each jar of liquid and documenting their observations. They also wrote hypotheses about what would happen in microgravity and increased gravity.
The flight experiment revealed changes in the behavior of all the liquids. The conclusion was the less dense the liquid, the more it moved. The more dense liquids moved less. "It was amazing," Fata said. "When we mixed oil and water, the water -- which is less dense than the oil -- shot up, and went right through the oil."
"We thought (the honey) would stick to the side," Fata said. "It hardly moved from the bottom. It was so heavy, even in a microgravity environment, it was so hard to move."
The Kilmer flight team included Fata, music teacher Carl Mason, bilingual teacher Edwin Cotto and health teacher Kelli McCue. Mason is making a music video about the project using photos from the flight and music popular with students. The video will be translated for Spanish-speaking students and parents.
Image to right: Liquids of varying densities move as the gravitational force on NASA's Weightless Wonder aircraft changes. Water (far left) and dish soap (far right) have formed spheres while honey and syrup (center) have not moved. Credit: NASA
"I truly believe we have inspired the next generation with this whole experience," Fata said. "They saw the excitement on our faces. I was telling them about the experience, and they realized that they had ownership of this whole thing, not us. We were the ones that were the conduits to do it, but they had ownership and this was their experiment and they understood that."
Flight team members from each school commented on the unique experience of increased gravity and microgravity.
Rorris couldn't find the words to describe it. "When you go from two-g's to having that release in microgravity, it's just unbelievable," he said.
Romanowski said swimming was the closest on-Earth activity to how he felt being in microgravity. "But even then when you're floating (in microgravity) you don't have the weight of the water," he said. "I loved it. It was fantastic."
McCarthy enjoyed experiencing nearly double Earth's gravity as much as she enjoyed microgravity. "It was amazing experiencing two-g's," McCarthy said. "You'd be standing up and all of the sudden it's like someone is pulling you down to the ground."
Fata was surprised by the lack of control in microgravity. "We talked about Newton's Law of Motion, and this really related to it. The slightest movement would push you across the plane. First you feel like a rock, and then you're just floating." Mason described the flight as a unique and awesome experience. "Each minute was a new adventure," Mason said.
Through projects like NASA Explorer Schools, NASA continues its tradition of investing in the nation's education programs. It is directly tied to the agency's major education goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. To compete effectively for the minds, imaginations and career ambitions of America's young people, NASA is focused on engaging and retaining students in education efforts that encourage their pursuit of disciplines critical to NASA's future engineering, scientific and technical missions.
Heather R. Smith/ NASA Educational Technology Services