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A weekend interview with space-savvy teachers

Space camps aren’t just for kids — adults get a kick out of them, too. Last month, more than 250 teachers from around the world attended astronaut training at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.   •   In the mix: teachers from the Tampa Bay area. For 12 days, the teachers donned space suits, floated in the air and relived childhood dreams in the Space Academy program sponsored by Honeywell International, a technology company.   •   The timing was bittersweet, teachers said, as NASA ends its space shuttle program this month with the current mission by Atlantis. The St. Petersburg Times talked to the teachers about their time at the Space Academy.

CherylAnn Tish, 50, St. Petersburg
Meadowlawn Middle School, St. Petersburg

When CherylAnn Tish sent her children to space camp roughly a decade ago, they had such a great time — she wished she could have gone, too.

This year, her wish came true.

The science teacher and mother of three experienced zero-gravity, extracted fruit DNA, learned about thermal protection and escaped from a helicopter that “crashed” in water.

Not bad for a 50-year-old, she said with a laugh. “I thought it was going to be a blast and it was.”

Tish said she never would have dreamed of having such an experience if she hadn’t become a teacher.

A dental hygienist for 25 years, Tish was inspired by the teachers who helped her children when they had a hard time in middle school.

“I thought I’d pay back,” Tish said. “My kids didn’t like the social aspect of middle school, and they struggled in their academic careers. That’s why I want to teach.”

She returned to school and earned her teaching degrees. The Detroit native moved with her family to St. Petersburg eight years ago to start her new career.

Tish said the astronaut training provided her with materials she hopes will help her instill in students a love of learning. “Kids know when you are really excited about stuff,” she said. “Simply being a more knowledgeable teacher is a tremendous help.”

Jennifer Thomas, 26
Grace Lutheran School, St. Petersburg

Since third grade, Jennifer Thomas toyed with the idea of becoming an astronaut.

But slowly, the dream became a blur: Thomas experiences motion sickness, so she thought she would never make it.

Then came her stint at the space camp and it has rekindled all sorts of possibilities.

“This experience poured gasoline all over me,” Thomas said. “I get to see what’s still out there and now I think that maybe I can still do this. I seriously gave up the dream because I thought I couldn’t handle it, but maybe I can.”

In one of the activities, Thomas was one of four people assigned to assemble a device during a space mission simulation.

“We did simulated spacewalks, and we got to put on these white jumpsuits and helmets,” she said. “It’s like you were repairing something outside the space shuttle.”

Even though NASA is scuttling its space shuttle program, Thomas still wants her students to dream about space exploration.

There is so much out there,” she said. “I hope and pray that these kids think that it is important to keep the interest alive and to keep exploring out there because there is just so much we don’t know.”

Laura Munson, 27, Largo
Imagine School at Palmer Ranch, Sarasota

Laura Munson loves rockets.

It started with her dad and a newspaper story about how he built a rocket with his friends and blew up her grandmother’s basement.

“He still has scars from it,” she laughed.

While at the Honeywell space camp, she met her longtime hero, former NASA engineer Homer Hickam, who wrote Rocket Boys. In the book, Hickam described how he blew up his mother’s fence while trying to launch a rocket.

Munson got to launch her own rocket at camp during a group project. Of course, there was a slight mishap.

“Our group shot the rocket, but it never came down,” said the 27-year-old graduate of St. Petersburg College. “We didn’t know where it went so we said it went into space.”

Her love for rockets trickled down to her students, too.

Last year, while teaching at Imagine School at Lakewood Ranch, she got her students to build rockets and to write up a business plan with a budget for the labor and materials it took to construct a projectile. 

Space camp boosted her creativity, Munson said. Just this week, she taught a group at an Imagine School summer camp how to build parachutes.

The possibilities of what she can teach are endless, Munson said. Just like space.

Micheal P. Floyd Jr., 57, Tampa
Clair-Mel Elementary, Tampa

A retired military man, Micheal Floyd was elated when he was accepted into the Space Academy. 

The schedule was relentless, he said, filled with field trips, assignments, simulations. “It was just really fantastic,” said Floyd, who teaches reading, writing, math and science to fifth-graders.

Floyd said he was impressed at how the teachers from India who attended the space camp were able to call out a radius and cut perfect circles out of sheets of paper. In turn, he showed them how to figure out the lift of crude rockets by proportioning water and oxygen in a cylinder.

Floyd said he can’t wait to show off the stuff he learned in space camp to his students, especially DNA extraction with simple household ingredients such as dishwashing soap, saltwater and rubbing alcohol. 

“A child is able to expand his imagination far beyond the earth,” he said, “and I want to inspire a child to be more than the sum of his or her parts.”

Mark Gasvoda, 46, Tampa
Gorrie Elementary, Tampa

Mark Gasvoda had done many things in his life to make a living.

He has been in the Coast Guard and been a paralegal, a technician for CarMax and a clothing import executive.

But teaching math and science to elementary school students seems to be the best fit.

“For me, teaching science is very natural,” the 46-year-old said. 

“I just have a lot of natural curiosity and interest. And the kids pick up on the excitement and everything.”

Space camp just took that up a notch. Gasvoda said he picked up on several great ideas that he is eager to share with students — such as creating constellations from their names.

“It invigorates you, especially when you are around other teachers,” said the Ohio native. “As a teacher, you sometimes don’t realize how isolated you are.”

Corey Peloquin, 29, Seffner
Teacher mentor, Hillsborough County

When Corey Peloquin moved to Florida from Connecticut to study marine biology at Eckerd College, he didn’t know he was going to end up teaching — or become a space geek.

During his first year of teaching, a colleague encouraged him to apply to the space camp program. “I instantly fell in love with everything the program was about,” Peloquin said. 

And right after that he enrolled in the NASA Endeavor Science Teaching Certificate Project. And, still, Peloquin couldn’t get enough. So he applied to Space Academy’s advanced program. 

“I learned tons,” he said. “It’s the best professional development program I ever had.”

Peloquin has kept in touch with his teammates from previous space camps. Over the years, they all have gone to Titusville together to see launches. They were set do the same Friday, when Atlantis soared into space for the last time. 

Peloquin hopes, though, that space exploration will continue.

“So many technologies evolved from the space program. NASA programs touched every single person, they helped improve our quality of life, so it’s not just outer space exploration but so many things,” he said.

Karen Stewart, 46, Lutz
Charles S. Rushe Middle School, Land O’Lakes

Karen Stewart is a veteran teacher — and a veteran space camper.

It’s easy to be into space exploration when you grow up in Florida, Stewart said.

“You can see shuttle launches from here, … it’s a huge part of living in Florida,” Stewart said. “I’ve always been fascinated by just looking up in the sky. It’s something I am passionate about.”

Stewart has taken students on numerous field trips to the Kennedy Space Center. She attended a parent-child space camp with her son when he was younger, and even won a trip from Northrop Grumman to go on a zero-gravity flight four years ago.

So the Honeywell Space Academy was a natural progression. She had a blast, Stewart said.

“Just when you thought they couldn’t top the last thing, they managed to top the last thing,” she said.

Stewart, who is also Pasco schools’ co-director for science and helps put on science fairs for students, now has two space suits to show for her stints at these camps.

She credited the corporations that are investing in bringing these programs to teachers so they can inspire students to pursue interests in STEM, short for science, technology, engineering and math.

“It’s amazing to see the effect not only on kids, but the parents, too,” Stewart said.”

-- Sylvia Lim, Times Correspondent


[Last modified: Wednesday, July 13, 2011 9:10am]


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