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Teachers Lose Weight—All of It

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Everyone from parents to presidential candidates has been talking about how American students are falling behind in math and science. If the question is how to get kids excited about the subjects, one way might be to get the teachers excited first. This week about 60 teachers from the Chicago area and elsewhere met up at O'Hare Airport. They were there for a unique physics experiment, sponsored by Northop Grumman. They slid into blue flightsuits, popped their motion-sickness pills, and prepared to experience zero-gravity. Chicago Public Radio's Gabriel Spitzer rode along, and brings us this story.


Videos of teachers in zero G and more

OK, weightless lesson number one: No jumping.

MICHELLE: If you jump, and you bang your head, it will still hurt. What goes up does not come down in weightless flight.

So, no jumping, no swimming – as little flailing as possible. Remember, you'll be floating in a swarm of middle school teachers.

MICHELLE: Try to avoid kicking your feet. You know, use your hands. How many people are gonna do the teacher toss?

These teachers are about to board a plane, go into a controlled nosedive and feel – for about 30 seconds at a time – what it's like to float in space. Greg Piecuch teaches science at Holmes Middle School in northwest suburban Wheeling. His students are mostly Latino and low-income. Latino kids score below the Illinois and national averages on standardized tests in math and science. Piecuch hopes by bringing back the firsthand experience, he can make the subjects more real for them.

PIECUCH: Maybe in other schools, they would know somebody who went to space camp. You know, 'Oh, my dad did that.' These kids, they don't know anyone that's ever had this experience. So this is gonna be really big for them. One of my focuses this year is to have students talk about science with their families. And what I'm hoping is that they go home and say, you know, Mr. Piecuch, he's going on a plane and he's gonna be weightless.

His partner on the flight is Ryan Maxwell from Rauner College Prep – a charter school in Chicago. The two schools have similar demographics, and both the suburban and the Chicago teachers struggle to keep kids engaged.

MAXWELL: Just seeing a lot of the drama and the thing that goes on in their neighborhoods, I've literally watched the hope get sapped out of kids. And so giving them something like this to see the hope of is the kind of thing I think is really, really important.

After a preflight briefing and short bus ride, the teachers file into a modified 727 jet. It's outfitted with what the company Zero-G calls its “floating lounge,” an empty stretch of fuselage lined with padding.

ATTENDENT: Alright, so is everybody ready to lose some weight? (Cheer!)

OK, quick physics lesson here: This plane is designed for parabolic flight. That's a series of steep climbs and descents, one after another. At the crest of each hill, the passengers are basically in freefall, dropping at the same rate as the plane they're in. This looks and feels just like weightlessness.

ATTENDENT: Pushing over, zero 3! (giggles, whoops, etc.)…

Weightlessness is utterly disorienting. People tumble through the air, bounce off each other and go careening in all directions. It's chaos. In a midair interview, I asked Ryan Maxwell what he had to say to his students back at Rauner.

MAXWELL: I wish they were here! They would be amazed! It's like, it's not being on earth, that's for sure.

In between parabolas, gravity doubles. That means I, for one, went from weighing nothing to weighing 300 pounds in about 30 seconds. We did this 15 times.

SPITZER: I think one more of those and I would have lost my breakfast.
ATTENDENT: Great job teachers! (cheer!)

At the end of the flight, teachers had to start figuring out how they would explain this crazy experience to their kids. Ryan Maxwell came up with an apt schoolyard metaphor.

MAXWELL: It's sort of like when you're on a swing. And you get to the top of that swoing, and you get to the moment that you're just kind of a weightless for, like that ones second. Only, you just keep going. And suddenly you can move in all sorts of ways you've never moved before. You spin your arm one way, and your body twists the opposite. Oftentimes there's someone above you and below you, and you're on the ceiling. And they say, 'Alright, put your feet down, we're coming out!' And you don't know which way is down.

It's hard to measure the success of a thing like this. Not everyone can be an astronaut, a physicist, or even a college graduate. But if this group of adults can be transformed into squealing kids by a big science project, maybe a little of that wonder can rub off on the real kids.

I'm Gabriel Spitzer, Chicago Public Radio.

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