PARSE Institute Teaches in Space

This past summer, leaders from the Practical Applications of Research in Science Education (PARSE) Institute took to the skies in a whole new way. The PARSE Institute, founded in 2009, welcomed a group of New Jersey high school science teachers who arrived in the summer of 2010 on the Saint Peter’s Jersey City campus ready to learn innovative techniques for making science come alive for their students. PARSE Institute co-directors at the time, Jose Lopez, Ph.D., assistant professor of physics, and Jim Clayton, Ed.D. ’71, assistant professor of education, brought a group of the teachers to Houston to attempt physics experiments in microgravity on NASA’s experimental plane known as the “Weightless Wonder.” Through a partnership with the Department of Energy (DoE) and Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), PARSE Fellows were invited to submit an application to NASA for an opportunity to conduct experiments in microgravity at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

The four-week PARSE Institute summer program consists of one week of instructional theory followed by two weeks of laboratory instruction and then a final week of lesson planning. The goal is for high school teachers to experience a research laboratory and then develop concrete lesson plans ready to share with their students during the following school year. Dr. Clayton comments, “As a graduate of Saint Peter’s, this makes me very proud that we are on the cutting edge of biogenetic science, physics, microplasma research and science instruction. I want all kids to be turned onto science through the work of their teachers who become PARSE Fellows.”

Lab placements for the summer institute have included studying about microplasmas at Saint Peter’s College Center for Microplasma Science and Technology (CMST), ecology at Liberty State Park, plasma physics at the PPPL, and bionutrition at the Liberty Science Center. In addition to these opportunities, last summer Dr. Lopez received the NASA offer from PPPL. The challenge to PARSE participants was to create an experiment, get it approved by NASA and then successfully complete flight training to fly and perform their experiments in the microgravity environment. The competitive opportunity had many inherent obstacles. Dr. Clayton points out, “Though our group did not include engineers, we had to meet strict NASA engineering standards.” The experiment that the teachers devised focused on how sound waves or acoustic pressure could be used to manipulate non-Newtonian or complex fluids in zero gravity.

Teachers from several New Jersey high schools participated, including professionals from Union City High School, the Milton School, McNair Academic High School, Saint Dominic Academy and University Academy Charter School. “For all of the challenges at hand, Jim and I stepped back to allow the teachers to face them and solve them using their own professional expertise,” reports Dr. Lopez, who served as the research mentor to the team. After the experiment was approved, the team traveled to the Johnson Space Center to take part in the flight. Every team member that was medically cleared by NASA’s flight surgeons and passed the flight training was able to participate. The experience was unique, educational, and most importantly, successful. Participants were able to observe and record the sound wave interaction with the complex fluid in zero gravity. Videos from the space flight are online.

An upcoming PARSE Institute educational opportunity will be offered on November 20, 2010. The PARSE Institute will present a free workshop for all science teachers grades 6-12 by William A. Gutsch Jr., Ph.D. ’67, distinguished professor of the College of Arts and Sciences and recently appointed executive director of the PARSE Institute, and John Ruppert, Ed.M., a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University as well as lab coordinator and instructor for the Saint Peter’s College Department of Biology. The three-hour program for teachers will utilize multimedia presentations and hands-on activities that teachers can apply to their classrooms. The workshop, “Earth-Sun Relationships: Looking Across the Sciences,” offers an exploration of the vital connection between the earth and the sun.

Potential future PARSE Summer Institute science research opportunities for 2011 may include space observatory research in Arizona or science field research in the Amazon jungle. The DoE and NASA are looking into further expanding the possibility of allowing other future PARSE Institute experiments to be performed at the Johnson Space Center.

For more information about the November workshop on the earth and sun or the PARSE Summer Institute 2011, please call (201)761-6436 or e-mail