APS News

High School Teachers Conduct Gravity-Defying Experiments

In May six teams of high school teachers conducted experiments in zero gravity aboard NASA’s “Weightless Wonder” (or “Vomit Comet,” although NASA doesn’t really endorse that moniker).

The teachers had been selected as part of a World Year of Physics 2005 project, in which APS and AAPT invited high school physics teachers and their students to come up with experiments that they could do in zero gravity. Sixteen teams submitted applications, and six were chosen to fly. The winning teams were announced at the AAPT meeting in January of 2005.

The six teams were: Beaumont High School, University Heights, Ohio; Circle High School,Towonda, Kansas; Columbus High School, Columbus, Georgia; Glenbrook North High School, Northbrook, Illinois; Greendale High School, Greendale, Wisconsin; Roosevelt High School, Seattle, Washington.

Planning and preparing for the flight was a long process, according to Vinaya Sathyasheelappa, APS World Year of Physics Project Coordinator. Each team was assigned a NASA mentor from Johnson Space Center to help them with the mountains of paperwork and to make sure that all aspects of their experiment were flight ready The flights were originally scheduled for May 2005, but were postponed because the new plane NASA had been planning to use for the flight wasn’t ready. The flights were rescheduled for September, but were then postponed again, this time because of a fuel leak and a cargo door that wouldn’t seal properly.

Finally, after several months of uncertainty, the flights took place in May 2006. The teams spent ten days at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, first undergoing several days of flight training and safety briefings before flying with their experiments.

The team from Circle High School in Towonda, Kansas studied the motion of objects in microgravity. The simple experiment took data that students will use to understand some of the basic laws of physics, said Dan Mattern, Circle High physics teacher. Mattern’s students helped develop the idea of accelerating a ball out of a tube, using a video camera to record how far and how fast the ball moved. They also performed the same experiment on the ground for comparison. Mattern said he had found it eye-opening to actually witness how fast things happen in microgravity. “I was surprised in zero-G how quickly everything went. It was amazing how quickly the ball accelerated out of there,” he said.

The team from Beaumont High School, a girls’ school in Ohio, made glycerol bridges–drops of glycerol suspended between two posts–of various lengths and widths, and measured their stability under microgravity. The girls and their teachers, along with mentor Greg DiLisi of John Carroll University, came up with the experiment after conducting a literature search to find interesting topics to research in zero gravity. They assembled their apparatus with computer and video equipment to record what happened to the bridges during the flights. “As the vomit comet pulls out of the dive, some bridges collapse and some don’t. We’re trying to figure out the size where the bridges remain stable and where they break apart,” said DiLisi. It was helpful that most of the experiment was automated, because it is difficult to do many tasks while floating, and even slight head movements can make one feel sick, said DiLisi. After the experiment, the students set about analyzing the data, and they plan to report the results in a journal article.

The other experiments were: a free-floating robot that used a light sensor grid and student-generated software to control the robot’s orientation; three separate experiments on magnetism in zero-g; a study of granular materials in an electric field; an investigation of how paints interact with themselves, each other, and different surfaces while producing unique artwork in zero-g; and an experiment to measure the tumble rate of a two pound pico-satellite.

The flights were successful, and all groups got some good data to take back for their students to analyze. The teachers and participating students then returned to their schools to share what they’ve learned by giving presentations about their experiments and developing activities for use in their schools and communities.


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
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