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Teachers, UTPA students experience weightlessness during flight
Posted: 05/03/2010
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It was a once in a lifetime experience and an opportunity for public school teachers to learn new strategies in encouraging their students to pursue careers in science.

About 30 educators, including three students from The University of Texas-Pan American, boarded a Boeing 727 April 30 that created conditions people would experience if they were on the moon, Mars and in zero gravity.

The University 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.

"It's like a dream," said Cris Gonzalez, a doctoral candidate at UTPA and an interventions coordinator for the Weslaco Independent School District. "The feeling of just being, weightless, floating around is like a dream."

Teachers from all over the state and three students from UTPA participated in the Northrop Grumman Weightless Flights of Discovery program April 30. The educators conducted experiments aboard a Boeing 727 in Martian, lunar and zero gravity conditions. Pictured from left to right are: Karen Dougherty, Michelle Milligan, Curt Liljedahl, Claudia Benitez-Barrera, Laura Alvarez and Cris Gonzalez.

The educators received a briefing before their flight explaining to them what they might experience while in the airplane, as well as words of encouragement from representatives of Northrop Grumman and UTPA College of Science and Engineering Dean Dr. Edwin LeMaster.

"Each of you is going to impact hundreds of students, and your passion is going to spill over to them. It's going to be, I think, a life-changing event for you because of the experience you've had," LeMaster said.

LeMaster said he was inspired to pursue a career in science by the launching of the Sputnik when he was a junior in high school.

"My whole generation was impacted by that," he said. "Now this event is not going to impact a whole generation, but it is going to impact the Rio Grande Valley and your students and, certainly, you."

Educators were divided into three teams and conducted experiments aboard the aircraft. The teams had their work videotaped for later use in the classroom.

Hidalgo Early College High School teacher Patty Gandy, above, and Mariel Robles, a teacher at IDEA College Preparatory-San Juan, float in zero gravity during the Northrop Grumman Weightless Flights of Discovery event April 30. About 30 educators from Texas, including three UTPA students, conducted experiments aboard a Boeing 727 that created zero, lunar and Martian gravity conditions.

Several teachers said the experience of floating weightless and conducting experiments in zero gravity was far more difficult than what they imagined.

The biggest challenge, some teachers said, was orienting themselves in less gravity than they are accustomed to because they didn't have to use as much force in their movements.

Patty Gandy, a teacher at Hidalgo Early College High School and a master's student at UTPA, said she even had trouble grabbing things because the friction involved in such an act was not there.

"I was more conscious of my own movements," Gandy said. "I had to help myself crawl. I crawled a lot like a spider woman through the whole ceiling."

After the flight, teachers were treated to a catered lunch and received plaques for their participation in the event.

Though most of the teachers were unable to complete their experiments during the two-hour flight, many said they have plenty of information to bring back to the classroom.

Gonzalez said she plans to include this experience in her dissertation and use what she's learned to train fellow teachers at Weslaco ISD to help their students learn science and math concepts better.

Her message to students: "Stick it out, do what you need to do because this is what you can do."