Andrea Spreter, a physics teacher, writes an algebraic formula on the white board wearing a navy flight suit. Her students at Edna Karr Charter High School in Algiers ignore the flight suit and copy the long equation of letters and symbols. As she writes, a laptop projects questions: In a weightless environment, what is the acceleration due to gravity? How long would it take for an egg to drop at two meters? Would your egg survive?
She moves to the computer and clicks on a video. A jumble of adults – all wearing the same style flight suits – is doing a weightless dance of cartwheels, cannonballs and Superman poses to a rock ‘n’ roll beat. Spreter is in that jumble of levitating loonies somewhere and so am I. We both experienced weightlessness with 58 New Orleans area science teachers through the generosity of the Northrop Grumman Foundation and the Zero Gravity Corporation, a Florida company that specializes in bringing weightlessness to the general public. The interior of Zero Gravity’s aircraft looks like a 1950s padded bra held together with duck tape but it’s no prop. Its pilots create weightlessness through a series of flight maneuvers called parabolas, or arcs, at altitudes of 24,000 to 32,000 feet. At the beginning of the arc, the plane climbs at a 45-degree angle, then at the top drops suddenly, creating temporary weightlessness. These parabolas allow the performance of amazing feats of agility even for the most abundant forms of humanity.
At zero gravity, humans and water float like bubbles but when the parabola ends, everyone must be on the mat. Everything – liquid and solid – crashes to the floor as soon as the plane pulls out of its descent. On my flight, M&M’s candies, stuffed animals, colored hoops and ever so small amounts of regurgitation littered the floor at the hour’s end. The Northrop Grumman Foundation – the philanthropic branch of the Northrop Grumman Corporation, a $25 billion global defense company that builds ships in Avondale – didn’t sponsor this weightless play just so teachers could experience a sophisticated version of nursery school, however. The flight was part of a nationwide attempt to attract high school students to science and engineering careers. The premise behind the program – 16 flights in eight cities – is that invigorated science teachers will share their enthusiasm with students who in turn will get high on science. Apparently they’re not very high on the subject now because the U.S. has fallen behind other nations in science and technology. The situation is considered so serious that President Bush announced an initiative to combat the problem in his 2006 State of the Union address.
So here it is two weeks later and Spreter’s class is still benefiting from the experience. “When I first found out I was going on the flight I showed them NASA videos,” Spreter says. “They had never seen weightlessness. It opened up their world. They had questions, such as, ‘How do astronauts go to the bathroom?’”Spreter, who has been teaching in New Orleans schools for six years, says that her weightless experience dovetailed with the state curriculum and gave her copious material to inspire the 106 physics students she teaches in five classes. She spent hours assembling video clips and PowerPoint lectures. She assigned algebraic problems involving gravity, acceleration and velocity but the most popular assignment was the egg drop competition she instigated between her classes as a lab experiment. The question was: “What is the best design to protect an egg from a two meter free fall?”
Teams of three students created egg crates to protect the eggs from free falls. The students used materials such as cotton balls, tongue depressors, plastic baggies and rubber bands to make crates that could cushion the eggs in their descent from varying altitudes. Each team developed a hypothesis, recorded data and turned in a lab report. Spreter tested their theories by dropping the protected eggs from the rafters of the classroom and later from the roof of the school. All put to the greatest distance only two survived.
So what do Spreter’s students think of all this attention to the effects of gravity? “It’s cool,” Lakeisha Dunns, a bubbly senior, says.Dunns’ classmates seem to share her interest. Today – a Friday, no less – all 26 students in the 11:30 a.m. class are in attendance. Except for the usual individualistic hairdos, they look alike: purple shirts and khaki pants. Spreter hands out 20 problems that calculate egg drop time on different planets. One such problem reads: An egg on Uranus, acceleration due to gravity 10.67 meters squared would hit the ground at a speed of 6.53 meters squared. How long would the drop take?
The calculators come out, heads bend over and pencils fly. Spreter circles the room to guide, prod and praise. I slip over to a girl with a clipped ponytail and ask, “Are they difficult to figure out?”
“No, not at all. She gave us the formula,” Devon Coleman says. She points to an equation of triangles, Xs, slashes and a parenthesis with a green and pink artificial fingernail. “She’s good.”
I move on to Donte White, who’s deep in concentration, his curled hair held back by a headband. He says the videos helped him visualize weightlessness, a concept he hadn’t fully grasped. “I was struggling but it’s easy now,” he says, “I’ll go home and do all these.”
At the board, students who know the answers use colored pens to fill out a bar graph. When the graph is finished, Spreter explains that some planets have a “sister” planet that has similar gravitational elements so the heights of their bars are about equal. When she says that Saturn and Uranus are sister planets, giggles break out.
“What’s so funny?” a student sitting near me asks. Her desk mate says, “Your anus,” in a “duh” kind of tone.
Yes, they are typical 17-year-olds but what impressive attention for students who don’t even need physics to graduate. As seniors, they already have the necessary science credits, Spreter says, a situation that makes her job challenging. After class, I ask Elton Anderson, one of the winners of the egg drop competition, if he likes physics. “I do now,” he says.