How it All Started
Across the country, there is a growing concern regarding the number of students entering science, technology, engineering and mathematic careers. We know that one way to reverse that trend is to make science and math fascinating and applicable for the students. And, in order to engage the students, we have to have educators who are excited about what they do and can bring unique learning opportunities into their classrooms.
To achieve this goal, the Northrop Grumman Foundation sponsored the Weightless Flights of Discovery program from 2006 – 2011. This unique, nationwide teacher professional development program was designed to inspire today’s students to pursue science and technical careers by inspiring their teachers first.
In its first year alone, the Weightless Flights of Discovery program was able to achieve maximum "reach" for the lessons of its microgravity "high school," delivering inspiration to an estimated 10,000 elementary, middle school and high school students.
The program was developed in cooperation with the Zero Gravity Corporation (ZERO-G), Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., a company that specializes in bringing the exhilaration of weightlessness to the general public. As part of the program, practicing classroom middle school teachers and future middle school teachers had the opportunity to participate in hands-on science workshops, and perform and experiment in a parabolic or "zero-gravity" aircraft flight that creates temporary weightlessness comparable to what humans would experience during space travel to the moon or Mars. It also mimicked how astronauts train for space flights.
"Every engineer, every scientist, every technically trained person in our nation can look back and identify a teacher who played a significant role in his or her decision to pursue a technical career," explains Sandra Evers-Manly, president of the Northrop Grumman Foundation. "The Weightless Flights of Discovery program is all about giving teachers the tools and experiences they need to show their students that math and science are not only entertaining, but can also be the basis for a fascinating career."
Floating — A New Approach to Education
The Weightless Flights of Discovery program included teacher workshops and parabolic flights in locations throughout the country.
In each workshop, teachers learned about the physics of weightlessness and what to expect on the zero gravity flight. They also designed microgravity experiments that applied science, technology, engineering or mathematics principles to human activities in a weightless environment. During the weightless flight one or two weeks later, they conducted their experiments under the watchful eye of a video camera. Teachers then used their videotaped flight experience and the results of the experiments to help shape math, science, technology or engineering curricula at their home schools.
Transforming America's Classrooms
Teachers who participated in the Weightless Flights of Discovery program reported through letters and e-mails that the fun and exhilaration they experienced during the program have begun showing up in their classrooms.
The flights helped them demonstrate to students that math and science are not only "cool," but also "fun," a language understood by students worldwide. And the teachers saw themselves in a new light, as a critical cog in a process that helped restore U.S. leadership in scientific and technical excellence. This program was all about giving teachers the tools and experiences they needed to show their students that math and science are not only entertaining but can also be the basis for a fascinating career.
Online Resource Guide for Educators
We developed an educators' guide as an online resource for teachers to learn more about the Weightless Flights of Discovery program. It provides insight on how to maximize the experience and take it back to the classroom to inspire students.
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How a Zero Gravity Flight Works
Zero gravity flights are performed using a specially modified aircraft, an FAA approved aircraft called G-Force One. The maneuvers are conducted in dedicated airspace 100 miles long by 10 miles wide. Specially trained pilots fly the aircraft in a series of maneuvers called parabolas, or arcs, between the altitudes of 24,000 and 32,000 feet.
At the beginning of each parabola, the aircraft climbs at a 45-degree angle. At the "top" of the parabola, the aircraft is "pushed over" into a controlled descent that creates a temporary zero-gravity environment. The teacher flights include approximately 15 parabolas ranging from low-gravity environments typical of the moon (1/6th G) or Mars (1/3 G) to complete weightlessness. At the end of each "weightless" period, which lasts approximately 30 seconds, the aircraft is gradually pulled out of the descent, reestablishing a more normal gravity environment inside the plane.
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"Participating in the Weightless Fights of Discovery program has been one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life! I will be incorporating this invaluable experience within the curriculum for many years to come."
Brien McMahon High School
"My mission as a teacher has been enhanced and supported in ways I never expected."
Madison Middle School
"A lot of the students went home and explained it to their parents and then logged onto YouTube and showed them the video from the flight."
Stuart-Hobson Middle School
"I have inspired my students not only to consider studying the sciences, but on the broader level that they are capable of great things and incredible experiences if they are willing to work for them."
Dionne Miller Couture
Six to Six Magnet School