A school in Lisle looked a little like a NASA lab this spring as students took advantage of a program that brought five of their teachers to the space agency’s headquarters in Houston.
Junior high science teacher Tanya Anderson at St. Joan of Arc Catholic School, already a veteran of two NASA programs, got excited about another one this spring called Microgravity University for Educators.
“Microgravity means a greatly reduced amount of gravity than we’d have on Earth,” Anderson said. “We always say zero-gravity. That’s not actually correct. There’s always some kind of gravitational force pulling on everything in the universe, whether from the sun or a nearby planet.”
The program helped students explore a low-gravity environment by designing a device to work within it, Anderson said.
The idea was to create a launcher that could operate in outer space-like conditions. The launcher had to aim a projectile toward a target while the target, and the base of the launcher itself, were both moving — like a satellite orbiting a distant planet.
NASA calls a device like that a SLED, or Satellite-Launching Experimental Device. The one created by St. Joan of Arc students got to make its debut in April in the big leagues of space design — the testing floor at Johnson Space Center’s Space Vehicle Mock-Up Facility.
With student designers watching via video chat, Anderson and four of her fellow teachers took turns launching a hockey puck from the SLED toward a target — just like a few fans get to do on the ice at a Chicago Blackhawks game.
The launch took place on a precision air-bearing floor, something the school re-created last month during its end-of-year NASA Rally.
“It’s like a giant air-hockey table,” Anderson said. “It reduces the friction between whatever is on it and the surface of the floor so things move more freely, like they would in microgravity like in outer space.”
Back in Lisle after their teachers’ return, junior high students at the rally helped younger kids create a rocket to be launched with an air compressor and to find a way to float small cups across a table with holes from which air was blowing “like a satellite would move in space,” Assistant Principal Michelle Picchione said.
In Houston, Anderson and her peers also got ideas for new scientific activities related to microgravity, friction and the laws of motion that they’ll incorporate into classrooms next year.
“Any time we can bring real-life science into the school and into the classroom, it gets the kids motivated and curious and excited to learn,” Anderson said. “So it’s just great.”