Teacher discusses academy experience

WELLSBURG – If schoolteacher Suzanne Davidson was assigned to write a report on what she did for her summer vacation, it could include launching a space shuttle and walking on the moon or at least simulating those and many other tasks performed by astronauts or scientists in the space program.

That’s because the fourth-grade teacher at Hooverson Heights Primary School was among 200 teachers from 47 states and 27 countries selected to participate in the Honeywell Eduacators Space Academy held at Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. in June.

The veteran schoolteacher was chosen from 1,000 applicants to participate in the program, which trains educators in using space-oriented experiments and simulations to spark students’ interest in science- and math-related careers.

Davidson donned the blue flight suit she received at the Space Academy to present photos and videos of her experience at Monday’s meeting of the Brooke County Board of Education.

The images included Davidson in a 1/6th gravity chair, designed to simulate the weightlessness felt by astronauts on the moon; and of her in the multi-axis trainer, a three-ringed contraption that spins its rider in various directions to create the disorientation felt while inside a space capsule tumbling from space toward the Earth.

Of the first experience, Davidson said, “You feel like you have Jello legs.”

Asked if the fast and erratic spinning of the multi-axis trainer bothered her, she said, “Those kinds of things don’t make me sick, but some people were wary.”

Davidson revealed as an individual or member of a team of six teachers, including one from Turkey and another from China, she conducted a number of experiments. They included using various materials to create a small heat-resistant shield like that used to protect spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere in heat reaching 3,000 degrees.

Unfortunately, the shield created by Davidson’s team failed, and the egg that represented an astronaut behind it burned up, she recalled.

Davidson’s team also was challenged to create a lunar rover that could be dropped safely from two stories into a circle on the floor representing the moon. While the craft missed the circle, the egg astronaut inside survived the landing.

Other tasks included drawing DNA from a strawberry, which appeared as a greenish fluid in a vial held by Davidson; and building a self-sustaining medical facility and water filtration system for a space colony.

She noted NASA hopes to send humans to Mars for exploration by 2030.

During her week-long visit to Space Camp and the affiliated U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Davidson said she and others marveled at the massive rockets used in the early days of the space program and heard from astronaut Don Thomas.

Davidson said Thomas related how he was inspired to become an astronaut by a teacher who allowed his class to view a space launch at their school. An engineer first and pilot later, Thomas said he applied to be an astronaut three times before he was accepted at age 35, Davidson said.

“I love that story because it shows kids not to give up on their dreams,” she said.

Davidson and other teachers at Space Academy also heard from Edward Buckbee, a West Virginia native and WVU graduate who created Space Camp at the suggestion of Dr. Wernher von Braun, a renowned rocket scientist and aerospace engineer.

Davidson expressed appreciation to Honeywell Avionics, which covered airfare, meals and boarding at the University of Alabama for her and the other participants.

Asked if she ever dreamed of becoming an astronaut, Davidson said her own interest in science was sparked later in life through Robert and Libby Strong of West Liberty University’s Handle on Science program, which trained her and other teachers to engage their students in hands-on science-related activities.

Such an approach is needed to encourage youth to pursue careers in the science fields, she said.

“What you hear over and over again is there is a shortage of engineers and companies are having to look to foreign countries for them. We are not educating enough engineers to fill all the jobs in this country,” said Davidson, whose son Thomas Davidson Jr., is an engineer with Universal Electric Corp. of Canonsburg, Pa.

Davidson said she plans to start an after-school Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Club at her school. In addition to participating in various science projects and activities, the club could be visited by professionals in various science-related fields, she said.

Board President Jim Piccirillo thanked Davidson for representing Brooke County Schools in the program, adding, “As a space lover, I’m jealous of you.”

(Scott can be contacted at wscott@heraldstaronline.com)