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updated: 6/3/2013 4:34 PM

St. Joan of Arc students help teachers prepare for NASA microgravity experiements

St. Joan of Arc students help teachers prepare for NASA microgravity experiments

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The students and teachers at St. Joan of Arc school in Lisle are taking science to new heights, thanks to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The elementary and junior high school is one of only seven schools nationwide selected this year to participate in the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program. This summer, four St. Joan teachers will travel to Texas, where they'll be able to conduct experiments in an airplane flying to simulate low-gravity situations.

"The microgravity experience, something we call 'micro GX,' is a very unique learning experience made possible by the NASA Teaching from Space office," said Becky Kamas, lead education specialist at the space center. "We give teachers a hands-on experience to take back to their classrooms to inspire students to consider careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)."

NASA notified educators in January of their selection based on a submitted application. The Catholic school's principal, Sister Carolyn Sieg, was delighted to share the exciting news with the students at an all school rally.

The St. Joan's team of teachers -- Tanya Anderson, Gina Dirienzo, Carolyn Friedman and Theresa Weber -- led missions for the school's 600 students to perform that would help the students understand the teachers' NASA experiment while helping teachers prepare for their reduced-gravity study of magnets.

Second-grader Charlie Cooney said it is "cool to see magnets floating above each other."

"Magnets are important to study because much of our modern technology uses magnets, and it is important to understand how things work," seventh-grader James Austgen said.

"Magnets can help us create new technology such as a train in Japan that can travel really fast," said Bridget Zurek, in seventh grade.

The St. Joan teacher team chose magnets because the subject could be adapted to all grade levels. Throughout the program, they've met with their NASA mentor via a conference call once a week to put together the technical equipment data package and assess the team's progress.

The St. Joan students and teachers have completed countless hours of work. Students at younger ages completed missions to create a countdown chain, plan packing lists and materials, design the official patch and study the Houston region and weather in July.

Fifth-graders created a video of the preparations. The junior high students worked on the magnets, design, fabrication, testing, assessment and data collection. The design involved several adaptations leading up to the final, safe and workable experiment.

All semester, the St. Joan team and NASA personnel also met online once a week with other groups that will be on the flight this summer.

"We have 45 tasks that need to be done before we go down to the space center," Anderson said.

"There is a whole digital learning network with articles to read and watch, for example, on buoyancy," said Weber.

All the teachers admit they are learning a lot, and in the process, they share their findings with their students for hands-on and inquiry-based learning.

Each St. Joan teacher team member is enthusiastic to take part. They represent a cross-section of the school's variety of subjects and grade levels. Each is the kind of individual who rides roller coasters for the sheer enjoyment -- almost a prerequisite for experimenting in reduced gravity conditions.

The teacher teams will have an experience of a lifetime when they take the school's scientific project aboard NASA's microgravity aircraft in July. The vehicle flies roughly 30 parabolic maneuvers, climbing and dropping over the Gulf of Mexico to replicate weightlessness.

During the maneuvers the St. Joan team will perform the school's experiment to study the effects of weightlessness on magnets. The device students created is a clear, roughly 4-foot-tall cylinder with a center pole positioned with disks of floating magnets. Each experiment needs to be contained within a safety box in which arm holes are provided to access objects.

"As you add more magnets to the cylinder, the space gets smaller," points out Anderson. "We hope to learn that in space when we have reduced gravity, the magnets will float further apart without much weight on them. Then when we are in 2G, there will be more gravity affecting the magnets and they will be closer together."

The teachers arrive in Texas a week before the mission to prepare with others at NASA. St. Joan of Arc school, which was a National Blue Ribbon School in 2011, has Facebook and Twitter accounts for students to follow along.

At the end of the flight aboard Zero G when it returns to Ellington Field, the SJA team will connect with Lisle students for a video conference call from the space center. The team hopes to accommodate as many students as possible for the video call considering students will need to return to school in July to take part.

The one remaining assist the St. Joan team could use is for a company or organization to sponsor them. Without outside support, the costs for the flight and 11-day stay from July 11 to 22 in Texas are the responsibility of each teacher participant. The St. Joan team could arrange to have a corporate logo of a sponsor on their shirts.

"The teachers will have videos, pictures and their own personal accounts to share with their students," Kamas said from her office at the space center last week. "Whether students want to grow up to be astronauts, rocket scientists or anything in the STEM fields, we want to give them those unique experiences to set them on their path. STEM is at the heart of what we do here at NASA."

This is the third year NASA offered this educational program to grade and high schools.

"I think a lot of folks might think that since the shuttle is no longer flying that we are out of business, but it is important for the public to know that we are definitely here doing wonderful things," Kamas said. "Keeping students and teachers involved continues to be a big part of our mission. If we are going to go to Mars and beyond, we will need the young people to be interested in the things NASA is doing."

• Joan Broz writes about Lisle regularly for Neighbor.

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