Researchers and flight coaches weightlessly float toward the familiar sound of a trombone. It isn’t the straight notes it sounds, but its unusual presence aboard a zero gravity flight that draws this curious audience.
“Even on a zero gravity plane, music has an audience,” says Lisa Werner, band teacher at St. Bruno Parish School in Dousman.
Werner was one of four teachers in the nation selected to take a zero gravity flight out of Fort Lauderdale this May as part of The Embedded Teacher Program.
The program, funded through a partnership between the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium and the ZERO-Gravity Corporation, allows accepted educators the opportunity to attend a microgravity workshop and propose research ideas to test aboard a zero gravity flight.
While aboard, Werner conducted four experiments that created visual representations of sound in a zero gravity environment including studying the speed of cake sprinkles as they react to pitches and forming three dimensional sound waves with styrofoam beads.
Werner even collaborated with her students while in flight to compose a piece of music using “chance composition” – a technique inspired by Mozart. A dice enclosed in a plastic container randomly selected corresponding one-to-two measure student compositions, determining the order of a piece they would perform at their spring concert a few weeks later.
“They were so excited because it sounded like music,” Werner says. “Their ideas were really good. They were excited to share that with their parents at the concert.”
And that wasn’t the only student-centered experience that Werner’s flight inspired for students at St. Bruno. The PE classes completed an “astronaut training” unit, Spanish classes studied related vocabulary, theater arts classes engaged in zero space play acting, and eighth grade science classes showcased Werner’s flight experiments with a school-wide demo day.
Werner says the supportive staff at St. Bruno is an important part of her story. “They were right there with me. I’ve appreciated all the work that they’ve put in and all the things they did to make this a school-wide thing.”
In preparing for the filght, Werner regularly collaborated with Dr. Kevin Crosby, Director of the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium and Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Carthage College. After earning necessary approvals, filing paperwork, and receiving a bit more training in what to expect, Werner was cleared for flight in May.
“It was crazy,” Werner says. “There’s no explaining it, because it’s just nothing I’ve ever felt before.”
Zero gravity flights–like Werner’s are created by parabolic flight. A plane flies at a 45-degree angle at one speed, then decreases altitude and speed, creating a window of 22 seconds of weightlessness. Werner’s flight completed a series of thirty 22-second sets of zero gravity.
“If you’ve been on roller coasters, or even like driving a car and gone over a hill extra fast and you feel that little rise in your stomach, that’s basically what they’re doing,” Werner says.
Werner says the experience sparked some creativity in connecting more of her band curriculum to science.
“I know that the majority of the kids in my class aren’t going to become professional musicians,” she says. “By connecting to the interests they have, my class becomes a little bit more meaningful for them and the experience is a little deeper for everybody in the class.”
At the end of the month, Werner will attend LiftOff through the Texas Space Grant Consortium, a workshop that invites 50 teachers from around the world to work with astronauts, engaging in simulations and collaborating with other teachers.
“It seems like every time I talk to another teacher, I get another idea for my own classroom,” Werner says.
She also says the lessons she’s shared with students go beyond the walls of the classroom.
“[The experience] really showed me that a lot of times if you think you can’t do it or you’re not good enough, that’s only coming from you, and you just need to fight through that and believe in yourself.”