Fairfield University students embark on NASA outreach project with Bridgeport public schools


Fairfield University students who in March conducted experiments in conditions similar to outer space as part of NASA's 'Microgravity University' have now embarked on the educational outreach aspect of this unique program. They will be visiting Bridgeport elementary schools to get students excited about science and encourage them to dream about the infinite wonders of space. NASA looks at the outreach as an avenue to spur tomorrow's scientists, engineers and astronauts.

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Brendan Hermalyn, the Fairfield team project leader, who hopes to encourage a passion in science, said, "The main motivation is to get across to kids the importance of going into space. So much comes out of space experiments, and life on Earth is better because of it. Airbags, computers, cell phones all came out of the space program."

Other team members include seniors Jessica Kurose, a physics and computer science major from Norwalk, Conn.; John Stupak, a physics major from Northboro, Mass.; and Mike Zaffetti, a physics and computer science major from Wayland, Mass. A Milford, Conn. resident, Hermalyn just completed his bachelor's degree in physics and music last semester at Fairfield University and is now a mathematics graduate student here. Throughout the month of May, they will make presentations about their NASA trip to nearly 1,500 students, complete with film of their flights aboard NASA's ‘Weightless Wonder,' a specially-equipped airplane that achieves weightlessness inside the cabin after it takes off.

The students are making the presentations in conjunction with the Discovery Museum and Planetarium in Bridgeport. The museum has been helpful in offering direction on the outreach and has provided educational materials for basic physics lessons. Elementary schools slated for visits include Barnum, Cesar A. Batalla, Waltersville, Winthrop, Dunbar, Beardsley and Thomas Hooker.

As part of NASA's highly competitive Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, the Fairfield University team was asked to design an experiment that would be conducted in a weightless environment, much like astronauts do while in orbit.

The students' experiment, entitled 'Splashless in Space,' examined the effect of atmospheric pressure on how droplets of liquid splash when they hit a hard surface. They used the microgravity environment onboard the plane to form large droplets.

The practical implications of the Fairfield study of liquid droplets in microgravity ranges from aircraft wing icing to ink-jet printing. The plane in which they carried out their experiment did steep climbs followed by equally steep descents, producing about 18 to 25 seconds of weightlessness. The plane made 32 parabolas for students to run experiments, with gravitational forces ranging from zero gravity to Martian-like levels at one-third Earth's gravity, according to Debbie Nguyen, a NASA Public Affairs Officer.

Schoolchildren will get to watch movies taken by a NASA crew of the Fairfield team flying over the Gulf of Mexico. It will give kids a peak inside the plane, where the Fairfield undergraduates conducted their droplet experiment using an apparatus that they built in Fairfield and that was mounted to the floor of the nearly empty, padded fuselage.

Alan Winick, education director of the Discovery Museum, said the museum has provided educational toys, which the Fairfield students are using to explain to children how liquid behaves in microgravity and how it behaves on Earth. Those toys include a gyroscope filled with liquid, an hourglass and a fish tank. "The Discovery Museum is absolutely delighted to collaborate with the Fairfield University team on this project."

Acceptance to the highly competitive program was based on whether experiments had scientific merit and educational outreach potential.

The team's NASA mentor Tom Leimkuehler, Ph. D., said that NASA wants Fairfield to come back next year to continue the research project. "I think their experiment was right up there with the best – good science and it worked! I wasn't the only one who was impressed with your students and their experiment."

It was the first time Fairfield applied and was accepted for the program, and they were in good company. Cornell, Brown, Yale and Smith sent student teams, too.

Through the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle missions, NASA has made discoveries that benefit mankind by undertaking research in microgravity.

Hermalyn said that the big picture of Microgravity University is to encourage younger generations to dream about space. "It's natural to think, 'Why would NASA fund anyone to do this?' NASA is not expecting undergraduates to make ground-breaking discoveries. They want to get people interested in space. There's no better way to do that than by taking part in what we did."

With Microgravity University, NASA continues with its tradition of investing in the nation's educational programs. It is a commitment directly tied to NASA's education goal of strengthening NASA and the nation's future workforce. While in Houston, NASA treated the Fairfield students to tours of Mission Control and the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, as well as talks by astronauts, engineers and scientists.

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Media Contact: Meg McCaffrey, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2726, mmccaffrey@fairfield.edu

Posted on May 7, 2007

Vol. 39, No. 217