A group of Prior Lake-Savage teachers took their classroom science experiments to new heights last month.

Five middle school teachers traveled to Houston to test a student-designed experiment in microgravity as part of a NASA educational program.

In all, 35 teachers flew with NASA engineers and astronauts aboard the G-Force One, a special plane that flies in a steep diving pattern to simulate weightlessness for about 30 seconds at a time. These parabolic flights are used by NASA to perform experiments and to train astronauts in low gravity.

Hidden Oaks Middle School Earth science teacher Becky Stark led the Prior Lake-Savage group after learning about NASA’s Microgravity eXperience at a space camp she attended in 2010. Stark collected more than 150 experiment ideas from students last school year, eventually deciding on one that tested the behavior of sound in low gravity.

“It was really cool for them to do some real science for a change. A lot of the experiments kids are exposed to [come] out of a box,” Stark said. “It’s kind of a unique experience to do an experiment where they didn’t know what was going to happen and I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

The Prior Lake-Savage robotics team helped students design and build a bell that could automatically ring with a consistent tone and didn’t rely on gravity. Students tested the frequency and decay rate of the bell’s tone on Earth so Stark and the other teachers could compare the sound in microgravity.

This fall, Stark said her new students will conduct the experiment in reverse, comparing results on Earth with the data she collected in July.

The five teachers — three from the sciences, one history teacher and one vocal music teacher — took part in online coursework during the months leading up to their two microgravity flights, as well as several hours of training once they arrived in Houston. Each flight lasted about an hour and a half, with a combined 15 minutes of weightlessness.

NASA engineer Juniper Jairala and astronaut Michael Fincke flew with the teachers.

This was Jairala’s first summer serving as a Microgravity eXperience mentor, but she has been conducting parabolic flights and simulated, underwater spacewalks with astronauts and civilians for eight years. Jairala said she helps microgravity flight passengers learn how to get the most from their scant 30 seconds of weightlessness and how to cope with the sudden increased gravity that comes after.

“When [people] suddenly float off the floor, they freeze. They don’t know what to do,” Jairala said. “They’re so excited or just overwhelmed that if they’re not getting some guidance, they might miss the whole experience.”

Jairala said she also teaches participants how to move while weightless. Some will flail, attempt to “swim” through the air or jump and accidentally propel themselves too far, she said.

The teachers said the floating, falling sensation of weightlessness was freeing and surreal. Hidden Oaks music teacher Terri Thomas said she felt calm as she saw objects and colleagues flying around her.

“It was peaceful, even though it was chaotic,” she said. “You couldn’t move fast … you just kind of had to be, you had to float.”

Thomas said the trip was out of her comfort zone, but she enjoyed gaining experience in a different field. She researched the flights and watched YouTube videos of weightlessness to prepare. Thomas also aided in designing the experiment, suggesting students soundproof the box the bell was suspended in to eliminate noise from the plane.

It was important for students to see teachers from different disciplines working together, Thomas said.

“I think that’s very powerful,” she said.


Tony Wagner is a Twin Cities freelance writer.