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'Look, Kids, We're Weightless!'

Stone Middle Teachers take zero-gravity flight.

Picture it. You toss some M&Ms in the air, intending to catch them in your mouth and enjoy them ... and they float away, out of your reach. And the harder you try to grab them, the further you move from them.

THIS WAS just one of the many interesting and unusual things that happened recently to three, eighth-grade science teachers at Stone Middle School when they went on a zero-gravity flight, courtesy of Northrop Grumman.

"It's unlike anything else you could experience," said teacher Mark Daugherty. "I found it extremely freeing," added teacher Clark Lindgren. "I was sad to come back to earth and be bound by forces."

But, said teacher Gary Caruso, "The exciting part was sharing it with the kids."

Northrop Grumman is the major sponsor of the Weightless Flights of Discovery Program in which the teachers participated Sept. 30 in Washington, D.C. They were among some 240 teachers nationwide taking part in this program developed by Zero Gravity Corp. in Florida.

"Northrop Grumman is our main business partner, and they notified me they had a couple slots open for teachers," said Stone Principal Ken Gaudreault. "So I told Christine Sciabica, our eighth-grade administrator and science-curriculum supervisor, and she put out the word."

Caruso, Daugherty and Lindgren responded. Sciabica wrote a recommendation for them and they were selected to participate. Said Lindgren: "We felt fortunate to be accepted because they'd turned away others."

Each teacher also received a $250 grant to use for things including classroom equipment and school field trips. For example, their students will participate in the nationwide Science Olympiad and will take a science field trip to Orlando and Tampa, Fla.

"All three are excellent teachers and provide wonderful experiences for our children," said Gaudreault. "We're fortunate to have such high-energy teachers."

BEFORE THEIR weightless adventure, they attended a Sept. 23 workshop at the Dulles Marriott. "They briefed us about the mechanics of the flight and how the weightlessness would be achieved," said Daugherty. "They gave us a crash course in the physics behind it."

"And how to bring it back to the classroom," added Lindgren. "And we discussed the experiments we wanted to do. And because of the ban on liquids [on airplanes], we couldn't do some of what we planned. The TSA [Transportation Security Administration] confiscated them." But, said Daugherty, "We had more to do than we had time for, anyway."

"Just trying to control your body is the hardest thing," said Caruso. "Once you start moving in a certain direction, you don't stop until you hit someone or something."

Their flight took off Sept. 30 from Dulles Airport, and the pilot flew special, parabolic maneuvers, over and over, so they could experience what it's like being without gravity.

"We did 15, 30-second intervals, or parabolas," said Caruso. "It's like a 10,000-foot-high roller coaster, and you're in a free fall with the plane." Said Daugherty: "At the highest points of the hump, you're weightless."

"And if you push off the floor too fast, you bang into the ceiling," said Caruso. "Clark and I both came back with bruises on our heads. And on the downside of the roller coaster, you experience two-G gravity."

"It's like an identical twin sitting on your head," explained Daugherty. "Our hands were harder to lift," said Caruso. "At two-G, it's a struggle to move and it's a little disorienting." Added Lindgren: "I was filming, and it was hard for me to focus because of the force pushing me down."

After the flight, he said, "The rest of the day, I felt like I was still doing it." Added Caruso: "If I close my eyes, I still get the sensation — because once you've experienced it, you really don't forget it."

"Everybody turns into kindergartners," said Daugherty. We were all yelling and screaming like kids." Said Caruso: "Everything was fun; everyone was floating."

Daugherty said 20 teachers at a time took the flight, and the plane's fuselage was divided into three sections with no seats and padding only on the floor.

"The teachers came from all over — Louisiana, Arizona, California, etc.," said Caruso. "The president of Northrop Grumman was in our section, and she had a great time."

Each team of teachers, coach and video person wore different-colored socks and arm bands — gold, blue or green. Stone's teachers wore gold. "So if anyone floated into your area who wasn't supposed to be there, we just beach-balled 'em back," said Daugherty.

He said the whole event was "out of this world — figuratively and literally. Our bodies are designed with a force pulling us down, and our behaviors are designed around it. So if I drop a pencil at school, I pick it up. There, it would keep floating. It's cool, it's fun, but also disconcerting because you can't stabilize yourself."

"We tried to grab M&Ms in space and lunge ourselves toward them," said Caruso. "You'd see them go by you, but you couldn't catch them." Said Daugherty: "Your urge is to kick your arms and legs, but you don't go anywhere."

"You're really at the whim of forces," added Caruso. "For example, just as you were finally about ready to grab an M&M — if somebody bumped into you — you'd go off in another direction. My students hypothesized about how many I'd be able to catch and eat out of 20. I was determined to get one, at least. Finally, I put my face up against the wall, pressured one and sucked it in."

Daugherty said it gave him a whole, new appreciation of what astronauts go through to do experiments. "Everything has to be Velcroed down or it floats away," he said. "I had some M&Ms in my pocket, but I forgot to zip it up, so they floated out," said Caruso.

But they all loved sharing their experience with their students. "The Friday before we left, the kids came up and wished me luck and sent me e-mails," said Caruso. "And when I came in that Monday with my space suit on, they mobbed me in the lobby with questions, and it was really touching."

As a teacher, he explained, "You try and generate that excitement all the time, and it was really humbling. And now we can talk about forces and the way they relate to what we see."

Before the flight, they hypothesized about how certain activities would happen in a zero-gravity environment. Sometimes they were right and sometimes they were wrong, but they learned from each experiment.

For example, said Caruso, "We squirted water out of a bottle and tried to catch it. But instead of splashing against our faces, as we'd expected, it kept its form and bounced off us like a marble."

Earlier, said Lindgren, Northrop Grumman told them they'd be lucky to get four experiments done. But they completed seven and still managed to have a good time.

"All of a sudden, you go from having weight to nothing," said Lindgren. "At first, we were in Martian gravity, 1/3 earth's gravity. It was like being on a trampoline where you could jump three times as high, but you still came down."

THEN CAME four segments of lunar gravity, 1/6 earth's gravity. Said Caruso: "We still came down in lunar, but much slower." Added Lindgren: "At lunar, you still had control. The kids at school asked me to do some flips, break dancing and some Tony Hawk skateboard moves, so I spun on my head."

"And I did corkscrews at zero-G, parallel to the ground, spinning 'round and 'round," said Caruso. "I'm not an acrobat, but I could do that in a zero-G environment."

During one experiment, said Daugherty, "We were trying to put an Alka-Seltzer in a small, sealed, film canister filled with water to make carbon-dioxide gas and see the top pop off sideways."

But without gravity, said Lindgren, "The bubbles weren't able to get away from the tablet fast enough." And, added Daugherty, "The water kept floating out of the container. I kept trying to slam it back in."

In another experiment, they dropped circular magnets threaded on a dowel. "Normally, gravity pulls the magnets down and then the magnets repel each other," said Caruso. "But at zero gravity, they spread out evenly on the dowel because there's no gravity pulling them down."

"We could look at simple, fundamental things and learn so much about the way forces work when you take away gravity," explained Daugherty. "And even when things didn't work, we found out why, and that was instructive, too. The forces of gravity are stable [on earth] but, when they disappear, the rules are applied differently."

In illustration, said Lindgren, "I had problems filming because I was bouncing around." Here, said Caruso, "We take gravity for granted — that you can walk and stand and you'll stay on the ground."

"I got a Hot Wheels track and tried to make a car travel around the loop," said Lindgren. "But at zero-G, it kept going in a straight line [off into space]."

They also experimented with a little propeller. "In our gravity, it spins like it should; but in zero gravity, it's erratic," said Daugherty. "It doesn't have the difference in pressure on both sides to make it lift, without gravity," said Lindgren.

For another experiment, their students had hypothesized what a pendulum would do in a zero-gravity atmosphere. "And it's things like this that cause kids to be excited about science and what the results would be," said Caruso."

Added Daugherty: "That was really the goal — being able to transfer the enthusiasm we had for the whole experience to our kids."

As for being weightless, said Caruso, "You feel like you could do it all day. It's so much fun and you have such a great experience that, when it's all over, you want to do it again."

BEFORE becoming a teacher, Lindgren worked as a meteorological technician and, he said, "It was eye-opening to discover that my bosses didn't know all the answers. But in school, there's always someone who has the answer already. At Stone, we're trying to teach the kids not to learn science, but to 'be' scientists."

All three teachers said they'd use what they learned from their weightless adventure when teaching their students physics and chemistry.

"It might also get both boys and girls interested in careers in math and science," said Caruso. "Because, after all — even though we were the ones who did this — it was really for the kids. We're hoping Northrop Grumman will let us do it again in the spring and, this time, bring a student, too."