RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
On Mondays we talk about technology, and today weightless flights into space. One of the country's largest defense companies, Northrop Grumman, is sending teachers on flights that simulate zero gravity. The idea is to inspire them to use technology to get their students excited about science and math.
Getting a ride on the G-Force One plane was pretty exciting for our frequent technology contributor, Mario Armstrong. He survived the ride and is here to tell us about it. Welcome.
Mr. MARIO ARMSTRONG (Host, Armstrong's Digital Spin): Good morning, Renee. How are you?
MONTAGNE: I'm fine. Now, these…
Mr. ARMSTRONG: I'm happy to be back on Earth.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: Well, tell us - I mean these flights mimic the weightlessness of actual flights to the moon, and you were with a bunch of teachers. So were you able to do anything fun like throw M&Ms or spit wads to see how long it took to hit the ground?
Mr. ARMSTRONG: Absolutely. Absolutely, yes. M&Ms were being tossed throughout this flight, which was really an interesting experiment, just to really kind of see how objects that would normally just fall to the ground would just seamlessly just kind of float. It was just quite surreal to kind of feel the different levels because we also did different levels of gravity, where we felt that at one point, we were on Mars, and that was about one-third G. And then we felt the feeling of being on the moon and actually walking, which is about one-six G. And then we actually felt full weightlessness of zero gravity.
MONTAGNE: And the plane itself, I gather that was pretty intriguing, the flight.
Mr. ARMSTRONG: It was. There are only about 20 seats towards the rear of the plane. The rest of the cabin is what they call the floating lounge. This is all an area that's fully padded. There are no windows. There's no overhead cabins whatsoever, and it's where you experience the feeling of being weightless. So you can bump around and not worry about damaging things or flying into a stewardess.
MONTAGNE: And the teachers - did they turn into kids?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, there was a lot of whoo and screams. You almost felt like you're on a roller coaster ride at some point. But they had serious experiments. So yes, they had a lot of fun, but they are also performing experiments that they had worked with their students prior to going on the flight. So they come up with all of these different hypotheses and things that they were trying to test out in these different weightless environments. And then all the activity on the flight was actually videotaped so that the teachers could then take that video and their experience back to the students and integrate it into the curriculum.
MONTAGNE: And what sorts of experiments?
Mr. ARMSTRONG: I mean there was everything from oil versus water density, which were where teachers would observe the forces acting on the liquids of different densities. There was what's called the teacher toss, where a teacher would just basically roll up into a ball and one teacher would throw the teacher to the next teacher. And that would kind of give you an understanding of the object's acceleration in terms of mass and net forces.
MONTAGNE: Now that would be inspirational for a class of kids, to see your own teacher turned into a ball.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ARMSTRONG: Right. That you could toss around.
MONTAGNE: That you can toss back and forth.
Mr. ARMSTRONG: But it's funny, the teachers did say that that's - it would work, because I asked - I said - you know, I was really critical about this because it seemed like you could have a lot of fun, but will it really come back down to the students? Will the experience really translate? And many of the teachers said they felt that this really would change the dynamic in the classroom.
MONTAGNE: Now, stepping back a bit, the National Science Foundation has for a couple of decades predicted a critical shortage of engineers and other scientists in the U.S. Is that happening and is this something serious enough that we should be worried about it?
Mr. ARMSTRONG: Oh, yeah, absolutely it's happening. I mean, if you look at the enrollment rates into computer science and into engineering degrees across-the-board, our percentages have become way, way low. What they're trying to do and what I've done in my own teaching to students and public speaking is trying to inspire kids to really pay attention to these career tracks and these industries by making these industries seem more cool, trying to make them connect to science and space and technology, so we can see those numbers go back up when it comes time to applying to college and advanced degrees.
MONTAGNE: Mario, thanks very much.
Mr. ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Mario Armstrong is host of the technology show "Armstrong's Digital Spin" on NPR member station WEAA in Baltimore.
And you can see a video of teachers having fun being weightless aboard G-Force One at npr.org.
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