The cosmic appeal of a zero-gravity experiment with Nasa
In late 2012, science departments in US schools were offered a once- in-a-lifetime opportunity: to work with their students on experiments that would have gravity as the variable.
It was part of the Nasa Teaching from Space programme. Nasa was looking for experiments that could be conducted at 1G in the classroom and then at zero gravity on one of Nasa's microgravity training aircraft. These aircraft perform parabolic climbs and drops over the Gulf of Mexico, simulating zero gravity for about 30 seconds at a time.
I applied with four other teachers who, like me, had always dreamed about going into space.
We have lift-off
Convection was the scientific topic we chose to probe in zero gravity. It is one way that heat transfers through fluids such as water and air. Understanding this process at a high academic level enables students to better understand natural processes such as weather, ocean currents and the motion of the Earth's tectonic plates as a result of mantle convection.
We proposed to Nasa that we would build a tank containing water, food colouring and a small number of tiny crystals that would move when the particles moved. At the bottom of the tank would be a set of heaters that we could turn on and off to create different convective patterns.
Nasa accepted our proposal, along with those from six other teams of teachers. We spent the winter and spring working with our students and local engineers to design and build the device, and then conducted the experiments at 1G with all our fourth-grade and fifth-grade students. Each student explained their observations of the fluid convecting in the device and made predictions of what they thought would happen at zero gravity.
On 11 July this year, the project group flew to Houston, Texas. We were given the full Nasa experience, and teams of engineers assessed our project for safety. On the aircraft, we were put through multiple operations briefings. After a few weather delays, we finally got to fly on 17 and 18 July.
The experience was amazing. Learning to control your body enough to conduct an experiment while not kicking the people you are floating around with is quite a challenge. But we managed to focus on our checklist and complete our experiment on each flight - thankfully, it all worked perfectly.
We had extensive video coverage of our zero-gravity experiments for students to view on our return, and they are now comparing what happened at zero gravity with their predictions.
It was not just the outcome of the experiment that we brought back from Texas. After meeting several astronauts and engineers, I left Houston with a richer understanding of what Nasa does. Sharing this inspires a new generation of scientists.
Kris Swanson is planetarium resource teacher at Poinciana Elementary STEM Magnet School in Florida, US.
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