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Local science teachers rejuvinated in zero-gravity flight

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

Teaching science can be a heavy burden. After all, the workforce of tomorrow will be shaped by the scientific achievements in classrooms today. But sometimes science teachers need to lighten up, have a little fun and get reinvigorated. KPBS Reporter Ana Tintocalis takes us along on a recent flight of discovery for local science teachers.

Martin Teachworth is an educator who lives up to his name. Today he and 20 fellow science teachers are gathered at Balboa Park in blue flight suits.

Teachworth: "I am so jazzed and excited because I've been a space fan ever since I was a young pup. So this is like a dream come true."

Martin, the teachers and I are heading over to Lindberg Field for today's adventure - a zero-gravity experience. Martin has the coolest jumpsuit of all. He added his own special patches. He also labeled his zipper-pockets with yellow and red tape strips. Inside those pockets are small objects he plans to experiment with when he's weightless.

Teachworth: "I never could qualify to be an astronaut. This is the closest you can come without actually going up."

Northrup Grumman partners with the Zero-G Corporation to sponsor these flights. Zero-G spokesman Noah McMahon says the companies want to change the way students see science, and their teachers.

McMahon: "We want to make teachers become rock-stars. We want to take those teachers and let those teachers do what very few people get to do. And we want their students to get excited by what through what their teachers get to do. So there's no better way to do it than this."

The group is ready to board the modified Boeing 727. Sarah Trueblood who teaches at Mann Middle School tells me the usual teacher training is good, but not enough. She says school districts need to provide more opportunities like this.

Trueblood: "Teachers really need to inspire their students to go into this field and this is an opportunity for this inspiration to happen. And it hasn't happened in a long time. So I'm looking forward to see what comes out of this."

Jim Crouch teaches physics at Valley Center Middle School. Like a lot of science teachers, he feels underpaid and overworked.

Crouch: "It's a profession where you're expected to behave professionally. But time and time again, you're not treated that way. Nothing against what's going on here, and I think its good for me. But there are others that have lost the spark a little bit and would benefit even more than I am."

One educator who hasn't lost her spark is Elaine Gillum. She's a small but vivacious science teacher from Marshall Middle School.

Gillum: "I have Star Wars light saber, I am a Star Wars nut, I have a Star Wars club at my middle school I am Yoda. And I'm going to do the Star Wars flip like Yoda."

But Elaine also brought some experiments to conduct in zero-gravity.

Gillum: "I have a cylinder with a scale, to look at the difference between mass and weight. A concept that's pretty tough for 8th graders to get a grasp of. But if they see that the cylinder is not changing the mass is not changing but wow there goes the weight. They'll remember that it's very visual."

As we board the zero-gravity aircraft, I meet up with Martin Teachworth again. I ask him what's in those jumpsuit pockets.

Teachworth: "Down over here I've got a slinky we're going to see what slinky does in Zero-G. We've got M & M's over here. So we'll be able to float those. I've got a spring scale with springs, and other pendulums, and so I'll try to do a number of things."

We take off. We climb to 24,000 feet. The science teachers are clutching their experiments. The plane makes a sharp ascent, then arcs down. That's when the fun really begins.

Ana: "Wow. I'm upside down, I'm turning around. We have 20 teachers completely suspended in midair. They're completely weightless. People are doing somersaults. I'm doing a somersault. There goes my recorder . . . It feels like we're swimming, but there's no water. Some teachers are playing leapfrog, others are doing back flips. One teacher curls-up into a ball and is tossed around.

Thirty seconds go by. Gravity is slowly returning. Martin floats underneath me.

Teachworth: "Oh its so much fun. Its incredible, you can't imagine what it feels like. You just so of drift. Its absolutely wonderful. (Ana: I've never interviewed people without the ground underneath me.) Yep this one's for the record book for me, I tell you. To be able to bounce around like a giant toy is pretty incredible."

We become weightless 15 more times, in 30 second intervals. Finally the plane touches down. The teachers pose for a photo.

The Zero-G Corporation will go to five cities this year, taking some 240 teachers on these flights of discovery.

These flights have a larger purpose too. They promote the exploration of space. That's why NASA helps provide training, and they're supported by the California Space Authority. The authority is a growing non-profit agency with an active interest in commercial space travel.

Sponsor Northtup Grumman is also interested in space and science. It will also give these local teachers $2,500 grants. The educators will use the money to buy science materials for their classroom.

Elaine Gillum plans to make the most of the money and experience.

Gillum: "And what we'll be able to take back to our classroom and share. I mean, there's staff development and then there's staff development."

Gillum says she can't wait to show photos and video of the experience to her students and experience she calls an adventure of a lifetime. Ana Tintocalis, KPBS News.

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