UTPA and Northrop Grumman Foundation prepare teachers for zero gravity flight
Posted: 04/12/2010
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McALLEN - Later this month, 30 educators from throughout the state will have the opportunity to live their childhood dreams of floating in space while developing new ways to engage their students in studying math and science.

Teachers Michael Robinson, from Port Isabel High School, and Yuridia Patricia Gandy, from Hidalgo Early College High School, look at materials during a training for the Northrop Grumman Foundation's Weightless Flights of Discovery program. The University of Texas-Pan American teamed up with the foundation to offer the program designed to help educators learn new ways to engage students in pursuing STEM-related careers.
The University of Texas-Pan American has teamed up with the Northrop Grumman Foundation and Zero Gravity Corporation to offer the Weightless Flights of Discovery program, which seeks to pique students' interest in pursuing science and technology related careers by helping their teachers determine how to make these subjects fun and relevant to them.

"After each program, we've actually surveyed the teachers who participated and we hear great stories about how they're using tools they gained back in the classroom," said Cheryl Horn, director, Northrop Grumman Foundation Weightless Flights of Discovery program.

Teachers have told the foundation they've seen their students' interest in math and science rekindled after they've implemented techniques they learned from the program, Horn said.

The McAllen area is one of just six locations in the country selected to participate. Current and future teachers -- representing 11 public school districts and UTPA -- will board an aircraft that will create temporary weightlessness comparable to what humans would experience during space travel. During the trip, educators will be conducting experiments they have developed with their students, according to the foundation.

The flight is scheduled for Friday, April 30 at McCreery Aviation Co. in McAllen.

On Saturday, April 10, educators slated to board the McAllen flight attended a daylong workshop the foundation hosted at UTPA's McAllen Teaching Site, where they received a briefing on the airplane, the program and other details of the event. They also developed ideas for experiments to conduct with their students.

"This is a dream come true for me," said Mary Cris Gonzalez, who is pursuing a doctorate in public education leadership at The University of Texas-Pan American and is an interventions coordinator for the Weslaco Independent School District. "I even get a flight suit. ... What an honor (it is for me) to represent the University and Weslaco ISD." Gonzalez said she failed many math courses from the time she was in grade school. It prevented her from pursuing a career as a pilot. That is why she has been researching what causes children to perform poorly in math so that she can help them overcome their fears of the subject and succeed.

Current and future teachers from all over Texas attended a workshop at UTPA's McAllen Teaching Site to prepare for the zero gravity flight they will take through the Northrop Grumman Foundation's Weightless Flights of Discovery program. Pictured from left to right are Laura Alvarez and Claudia Benitez-Barrera, teachers at Cesar Chavez Middle School in Mission, and Mary Cris Gonzalez, an interventions coordinator for Weslaco Independent School District.
"I believe mathematics is the eliminator of a lot of children," Gonzalez said. "I hate to see kids struggle with math."

Having the opportunity to participate in this project will help her construct her dissertation and develop ways to engage students in learning about math, she said.

Gustavo Perez, who is pursuing his master's degree in chemistry and instructional technology at UTPA, said he used to watch astronauts on TV and at one time dreamed of becoming one. Perez, who also works as a STEM educational specialist for Region One Education Service Center in Edinburg, said the firsthand experience of being in zero gravity will allow him to better train teachers throughout South Texas on educating students about various scientific concepts.

"My ultimate goal is that I can take my experience and influence kids here and get them interested in STEM," Perez said.

To learn more about the Northrop Grumman Foundation Weightless Flights of Discovery, please visit