Many educators seek to improve their teaching skills during summer break, but few have gone to the extremes of Riverside Middle School's Pam Ferris.
As part of her studies with the U.S. Department of Energy's Academies Creating Teacher Scientists at Princeton University, the eighth-grade physical science teacher last month took a roller coaster-like ride in a NASA jet to experience weightlessness.
"I don't know how to describe it," Ferris said of the microgravity flight she took from the Johnson Space Center in Houston a week before school started. "People talk about it being like swimming under water, but when you push with your hands on water you can move. When you push on air, you just look like an idiot waving your hands around."
Princeton's ACTS program is meant to get students excited about learning science by getting educators excited about teaching it, Ferris said.
On her, the program worked.
"I don't think anybody could love their job more than I do," said Ferris, who previously taught science courses at Evans and Glenn Hills high schools. "I always tell my kids to become science teachers, because what other job can they go to everyday and play with all sorts of cool gadgets?"
The glee she exuberates for her work even spread to other teachers at her school.
"I really fell in love with earth sciences, but Pam got me crazy about (physical science)," said Riverside Middle teacher Chris McDaniel.
Like Ferris did in 2003, McDaniel took part in a one-week Plasma Camp at Princeton during the summer. He also hopes to follow her into the ACTS program next year, though he is unsure if he ever will get a chance to take a microgravity flight that simulates the zero-gravity environment of space.
Ferris took the flight with fellow teachers in the ACTS program and with an astronaut training to be part of the final space shuttle mission in November. She and her classmates conducted an experiment on the influence of convection on plasma in zero-gravity conditions.
The DOE paid for the $5,000-per-person flight and also provided Ferris with grant funds to buy spectrometers and spectroscopes for Columbia County middle schools. In exchange, she and others developed lesson plans on the experiments they conducted during the summer.
Ferris put some of those lesson plans to use recently by sending an electrical current through the gas of a fluorescent light bulb to turn the gas into plasma. It's an experiment she shared with McDaniel to show his students.
"We're sending a lightning bolt back and forth to the ends of a glass tube to excite gases," McDaniel said. "The kids love learning about stuff like that."
Ferris also used spectroscopes and spectrometers provided by Princeton to show students how they can identify gases using the distinctive light spectrums and wavelengths they emit while in a plasma state.
"I taught biology and anatomy for 10 years before turning to conceptual sciences," Ferris said. "No change ever made me happier. I get to be the big nerd that I am and do something cool and different every day."
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