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Minnesota Space Grant Consortium educates students on the physics of freefall

James Flaten

MnSGC Associate Director James Flaten explains the basics of propulsion in a freefall environment.

Students, parents, and teachers at Farnsworth elementary school in St. Paul had the opportunity to hover above their gymnasium floor Monday night, all while learning some of the most fundamental laws of physics.

As part of its commitment to community outreach, representatives of the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium, which is housed in the University's Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics, spoke to students and parents about the basics and tools of astronaut training. Excitement was practically tangible in the air around the students waiting to use fire extinguishers and gyroscopes (spinning bicycle wheels) to control hovercraft speed, orientation, and otherwise simulate movement in the freefall experienced by astronauts while in orbit.

Kelly Riley, a mother of three Farnsworth students, said the event was a “great way” to introduce children to engineering.

“A lot of times you talk about engineering and kids don’t understand what it is, and, as parents, we don’t know how to describe the field,” she said. “But this is a fun way to see it in action.”

Farnsworth is a K-6 aerospace magnet school; aerospace concepts and history are incorporated into all aspects of curricula, allowing students interested in the skies and beyond a strong background in the sciences and writing. In part due to its excellence in aerospace, Farnsworth is also a NASA Explorer school, providing teaching resources, including professional development for teachers in the field of aerospace over summer months. Farnsworth students have also been fortunate to have visits from several NASA astronauts in recent months, like Minnesota's first woman in space Heide Marie Stefanyshyn-Piper and University alumnus Digger Carey.

MnSGC’s Associate Director James Flaten was the featured speaker of the evening, which also included displays showing the culmination of weeks of work on the part of students where they focused on robotics and analyzing new foods for space-flight consumption, among a myriad of other aerospace-related projects. Dr. Flaten was assisted by IT students Anneli Icenogle and Andrew Atkins, recent recipients of MnSGC scholarships, and aerospace major Mark Stole, who volunteers at Farnsworth.

Visits to schools like Farnsworth further two major objectives of the MnSGC - to help educate a broad audience about NASA's interests and space issues and to encourage students from diverse backgrounds to consider aerospace as a career, Flaten said. As for the evening's discussion about using a hovercraft to simulate astronaut training, he said, audience members are interested but don’t initially see a connection.

“But when we pull out an actual hovercraft and start playing with it things sort of click for a lot of people,” he said. “I think most audience members leave with some appreciation for the idea of using hovercraft for astronaut training, but with brand new questions about living and working in space.”

It’s never too early

In addition to a hovercraft-filled evening, Farnsworth students spoke with University student volunteers about life beyond elementary school. One Farnsworth student, Ashley, said she has her eyes set on the stars.

“It’s a wonder to feel that you can be up there and help make the world a better place,” she said.

Already looking toward college, likely at the University, Ashley said she wants to pursue a degree in aerospace.

Jill Wall, University alumna and Aerospace Coordinator at Farnsworth, noting the long line for the hovercraft, said while kids can read about science or view demonstrations, students truly learn when they try it out for themselves.

Although sixth-graders may not be thinking about attending a college or university, Wall said, they need to start thinking about their goals and dreams.

“We need to give them the confidence and courage to do that,” she said.

One way to get younger kids thinking about college is making that elementary to post-secondary connection, Wall said.

The MnSGC is a NASA Higher Education program which provides college faculty and students with support in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields, especially on topics of interest to NASA. This program also strives to increase public awareness of what NASA does and opportunities

in space science by reaching out to pre-college teachers, students, and the general public.


Scenes from Farnsworth

Click the above image to view scenes from the evening.

To learn more about the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium, please visit

Last Modified: Wednesday, 22-Aug-2012 11:01:14 CDT -- this is in International Standard Date and Time Notation