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T Q&A

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Since 2004, the Honeywell Educators @ Space Academy program has given teachers from all over the world the chance to go to space camp. Robin Maxey, who teaches math at Tortolita Middle School, was selected as one of 265 teachers to attend this year's camp. She has been teaching for nine years. The program, held June 18 to 29, at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., focused on space science and exploration and provided teachers with the tools to perform some of the experiments in the classroom. The teachers were also able to participate in simulated astronaut training.

The Honeywell Educators @ Space Academy program required that applicants submit a 500-word essay describing the tools and techniques they use to motivate students to study science-related fields and pursue technology-related careers. What did you write about?

My essay focused on girls in engineering. I notice, at the middle school, girls are very strong math students. Yet, last summer, I did a five-week class with the chemical engineering department at the UA, where teachers worked with professors. One of the things we talked about was how few women go into the engineering field. It's surprising to me that these girls are so strong in math in junior high, but don't choose a career in the math or science field.

Have you recently had students that wanted a career in that direction?

No, and that's one thing that I tried to encourage in the essay. I wanted to find out more about the space industry, so that girls, specifically, could try and explore that as an option. One of the things they kept telling us was that we are working toward going to Mars. This year's seventh- and eighth-graders will be those astronauts that walk on Mars.

Did you tell your students that you were going to space camp?

I found out in April. My students were so excited. They thought it was strictly for kids. I told them that I was going to take classes, complete experiments and learn more about the space program. Some of the kids wanted to get in my suitcase and go with me!

Tell me about the program.

We did a couple of simulations. In the Challenger mission, my role was the CAPCOM (capsule communicator). If you've ever listened to a launch, it is the public voice--the person who tells you what's going on inside the space shuttle, with the launch and the spacewalk. I had to tell everything that was going on--even things like weather and the countdown.

Did you do a spacewalk?

No. But I did do things like the one-sixth walk, where you are simulating the gravity of the moon. ... It's on this giant spring with a rough terrain, like craters. So you get in this contraption, and you walk--but one little step sends you flying. It's kind of cool. I'm sure you have seen that elliptical contraption where you sit in this chair, and you swing around. It's very free-floating. We did this to simulate weightlessness.

I'm sure you got a little queasy.

Because your center of gravity doesn't move very much, you don't get sick. Some people were a little more afraid of it than others. I enjoyed it, but one of the ladies, from Italy, couldn't handle it!

What did you go over in the classes?

A lot of really cool experiments, like the egg drop, where you attach a parachute to a raw egg. It was fun to work cooperatively with the other teachers. We also created, with a few tools, a heat shield, which is used to protect the astronauts from the heat of re-entry back into the Earth's atmosphere. My group designed what we thought would work, but when they put the propane torch on it, it went up in flames in about 30 seconds. But we got a second chance after seeing what worked for other groups.

You can teach these kinds of experiments to your students?

Yes. I can break up the experiments into two days and show the kids, "This is what worked, and this is what didn't work."

What was the most memorable part of the program for you?

We had some classes, with speakers like astronaut Story Musgrave. He has been an astronaut for over 30 years, and he spoke about perfection and how we should never settle for less. Homer Hickam wrote the book Rocket Boys, which was made into the movie October Sky. He is very down to earth. He helps support the town in West Virginia that he grew up in with all the proceeds from his books. Getting to meet the speakers is what I will keep with me and remember the most.

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