Niagara Gazette

August 12, 2013

Falls woman finds out she has the right stuff, attends Space Academy

By Timothy Chipp timothy.chipp@niagara-gazette.com
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Falls resident Nancy O'Brien received the shock of her life earlier this year. What's developed out of it is something she'll brag about for the rest of her life.

As a middle school science teacher in Cheektowaga's Cleveland-Hill district, O'Brien applied to join Honeywell Educators @ Space Academy, a program which brings science teachers from around the globe together for professional development reasons.

She tried last year and wasn't accepted. She tried again this year and wasn't accepted. She told herself she wasn't going to give up, but, as luck would have it, she didn't need to.

"I told myself I was going to keep applying every year until they accepted me," she said. "But a couple weeks later, I got a call and they said there was enough space and asked me if I wanted to join. I was in my car at the time, and when I hung up, I was screaming, 'I'm going to Space Camp.' "

And did she ever. School ended June 21 and her flight left the Buffalo Niagara International Airport at 4 p.m. that same evening. She spent an entire week in Huntsville, Ala., the home of space camp, working with other teachers from around the world, including a group of four from Saudi Arabia and one from the Netherlands.

Once there, she and her team of 13 others worked on several projects designed not only to simulate space environments, but also to build teamwork and educational principles. O'Brien said she was able to serve as the countdown person from mission control during a simulated rocket launch mission, helped solve problems while being "stationed" at a futuristic moon base and designed a heat shield capable of atmospheric reentry.

The heat shield experiment, she said, is one she is particularly proud of and might consider bringing it back with her into her classroom when students return in September.

"It's something we can definitely use in the classroom," she said. "We had to design a material capable of withstanding a blow torch an inch away for three minutes. Meanwhile an egg on the other side couldn't be cooked. It was fun. Some of them set on fire, some of the eggs were destroyed. Our team was able to do it, so we won."

Experiments like the heat shield have a ton of potential in the 21st century classroom, she said, because of the growing interest in pushing science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or STEM – education. 

While flaming eggs and blowtorches are exciting, they're not the only things she's hoping to bring back home to Western New York. Another experience she plans on playing around with in the the classroom is a lot more practical.

In space, she said, astronauts must recycle all water because, well, there isn't any water source hundreds of miles above the earth. This includes urine, though no one tested this in her academy group. She said this might come back with her as well.

"The one in Alabama was green and had pieces of cotton balls and maybe glitter in it," she said.

In the end, O'Brien's job is to inspire her students to do more with science, the mission of Honeywell's camp experience. Through collaborating with teachers, the space academy's organizers are hopeful students will get the chance to play around with scientific theories and have a more hands-on education.

Since the program's inception in 2004, Honeywell has awarded scholarships to 1,756 teachers from every state and more than 45 countries. This year's program alone brought educators from 42 different states and 27 countries to the camp.

"Inspiring students begins with inspiring teachers," Tom Buckmaster, president of Honeywell Hometown Solutions, said. "Honeywell Educators @ Space Camp gives teachers an engaging and unforgettable learning experience that heightens their ability to become even more effective educators."

For more information about the program, go online to educators.honeywell.com.

Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.