ELM GROVE — Three St. Mary Visitation teachers recently returned from Texas where they rode on the “Vomit Comet.”
Yes, you read that right.
Junior high science teacher Kathy Biernat, sixth-grade math teacher Michael Falk, and fourth-grade teacher Kylie Daemmrich traveled to Johnson Space Center in Houston in February to conduct experiments aboard a NASA reduced-gravity simulator. The aircraft allows passengers to experience the sensation of weightlessness, hence the nickname.
“We had been given anti-nausea shots prior to the flight and, thankfully, the meds worked,” said Daemmrich. “The flight was amazing. There really aren’t words to describe it.”
Biernat agreed, and explained that NASA officials encouraged the pre-flight injections due to the high probability of nausea.
“We were told that without the shots, a third would be severely affected, a third a little affected and a third would not be affected,” she said. “We all took it, and out of 35 of us on the flight, there were still three who did get sick and that was with having the shots.”
St. Mary’s educators were one of 14 NASA Explorer School teams selected for the honor. The teams performed scientific investigations aboard a modified aircraft which produces weightlessness for approximately 20 seconds at a time by executing a series of parabolas – a steep climb, followed by a free fall, over the Gulf of Mexico. During the free falls, the participants were able to gather data in the unique environment and experience near-weightlessness.
Each year, NASA’s Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program (RGEFP) gives undergraduate students and K-12 educators the opportunity to propose, build and fly a reduced-gravity experiment. NASA Explorer School participants flew experiments provided by the agency. These three experiments, which included how liquids react in microgravity and how the absence of gravity affects mass and weight, were replicated by the teachers in their classrooms, allowing students to gather data that was compared to the data the teachers obtained during their flight.
The trip was the culmination of months of work for the teaching team, as well as the junior high and fourth-grade students. According to Daemmrich, the grades collaborated to conduct experiments at 1g or regular Earth gravity.
“The students had been making and modifying predictions about the results of these same experiments in 0g and 2g environments,” she said. “Their discussions were truly insightful.”
While this is the second year St. Mary Visitation participated in the NASA Explorer School project, it was the first time the teachers were selected to travel on the all-expense paid trip to Houston. The project is aimed at providing teachers of grades four to 12 with authentic learning experiences centered around the NASA missions.
The opportunity stemmed from Biernat’s involvement with the NASA Explorer Program last summer when she spent a week in California reviewing NASA curriculumand participating in webinars.
“When I came back in the fall, my eighth-graders were able to manipulate a 32-meter radio telescope in California from my classroom,” she said. “They Skyped with NASA scientists and discussed their data. One of my students said that he felt so empowered to be able to do this.”
Through her experience, Biernat was qualified to write and sell St. Mary School as a team of three teachers who would work together throughout the year on a variety of experiments and, if selected, would travel to Houston to perform the same experiments.
“I figured we wouldn’t get selected for this because there were 1,300 schools eligible for this, but we ended up getting chosen,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it, they paid for our airfare, hotel, car, food and the $41,000 an hour plane ride while we were there. It was incredible.”
While working on the experiments during the year, students learned from their real-world experiences, which enhanced their understanding of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In addition, students were able to participate in video conferencing with NASA scientists, role-play and problem solve.
“On the flight, we had little glass stations with gloves in them and manipulated the experiments,” said Biernat. “We did five trials of each in hyper-gravity and five in hypo-gravity and analyzed the data. We also brought toys along with us that the kids had voted on and played with them in zero gravity and in hyper-gravity. We brought along a rubber popper that hardly went at all in hyper-gravity, a bolero game, a toy called a firefly that spins and shot colors out and a Slinky. We did 33 parabolas up and down and had 45 dives – it was great.”
At zero gravity, the participants began to float and at 2g or double the Earth’s gravity, bodies sank quickly to the floor of the aircraft. Some participants sat against the walls and some chose to lay down, but surprisingly, no one experienced an uncomfortable pressure.
“Zero g was incredible,” admitted Daemmrich. “There was no feeling of falling. You just floated. You also had no control over where your arms, legs and torso went. Sometimes your feet just floated above your head and you couldn’t get them down without help. It was weird and different to see people bouncing along the ceiling or just hanging like spiders or lizards along the walls. The fact that you didn’t feel like you were falling made us adventurous and willing to embrace the novelty of this extraordinary opportunity.”
In fact, Biernat took advantage of her upcoming 50th birthday to convince NASA officials to allow her to perform a couple of flips during the 23 seconds the plane descended into hypo-gravity, or zero gravity.
“I was all for hanging onto the straps and all, but I also wanted to have some fun, too,” she said. “They discouraged me from doing the flips because they were dangerous, but I was persistent and they finally allowed me to do it. It was incredible.”
The following day, students at St. Mary Visitation Skyped with their teachers and were able to ask questions about the flight and the results of the experiments. The teachers also toured three JSC buildings: the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, the Precision Air Bearing Facility and Mission Control. They participated in professional development with NASA engineers and astronauts, and networked with math, science and technology teachers from around the country.
“The trip inspired and energized us to continue the paths we are on and incorporate more STEM activities in our classes,” said Daemmrich. “As an educator, I came away from this experience with a renewed passion for math, science, and technology and how to bring them to life for my students. These have always been my favorite subjects to teach, but now I’m focusing on how I can meet the standards through student-centered activities that will encourage my kids to become lifelong learners and problem solvers.”