When Ballston Spa High School science teacher Ankie Meuwissen accidentally stumbled upon the Honeywell Educators in Space Academy during a search for more compelling materials to use in her astronomy course, she had no idea she would be chosen to participate in an intensive and exhilarating five-day space training program.
Meuwissen has taught earth science, astronomy and physics for the past five years at the high school and before that she taught at Niskayuna High School and in Braintree, Massachusetts. She is originally from the Netherlands and came to the United States in 1999.
She learned about the program in 2016 and decided to apply in the fall, when the program began accepting applications for 2017.
The Honeywell program was created in partnership with the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, known as one of the most comprehensive U.S. manned space flight hardware museums in the world, according to the literature.
The program is designed for middle school math and science teachers. It includes simulated astronaut training and other innovative educational tools for educators so they can bring science to life in their classrooms.
“I’m not 100 percent sure exactly which part of what I wrote in my application made them choose me,” Meuwissen said. “I was just thinking it would be a good way to get new materials to work with in the astronomy course we offer.”
She must have said something right in that application. Honeywell Hometown Solutions, which sponsors the yearly training program for educators, receives thousands of applications from teachers around the world each fall. Since 2004, more than 2,575 educators from 55 countries and 52 states and U.S. territories have graduated from the program, according to the program website. Meuwissen and 199 other educators were chosen to make the trip to Huntsville, Alabama, where they took up residence in the University of Alabama dorms on June 15.
From there, the educators-turned-students were immersed in a weeklong, 45-hour cycle of classroom lectures, labs and hands-on training using sophisticated simulated astronaut training.
A typical day included rising at 6 a.m. and getting ready for the day in their dorms. Meuwissen said the dorms housed four participants of mixed nationality in each suite.
“Half were Americans and the other half international teachers,” she said, noting the importance of communication skills and working together with people from different cultures and backgrounds during training in some complex and critical scenarios.
“By 7 a.m. we were brought to the Space Center for breakfast, and then our teams went off to our scheduled activities, lectures, whatever was on that day’s schedule. After lunch, we would work with our crew trainer. There were between 15 and 16 people per team, and we got pretty tight as a group,” said Meuwissen.
During her week at Space Academy, Meuwissen and her fellow students simulated two separate space missions. Their teams were divided between flight control and space capsule. During one mission, Meuwissen’s team simulated a safe landing on Mars, with the mission of providing oxygen to a “habitat” that was put in place on the planet.
“When we got to Mars, a couple of teachers got suited up and installed solar panels in ‘gravity’ chairs, and myself and the other teachers got suited up and connected the oxygen tanks,” she said.
In addition to using STEM capabilities to promote learning and proficiency in the middle- and high school level, Meuwissen and her co-participants learned the importance of communication skills.
“When you’re in the simulated space capsule, you’re relying heavily on the ground people to look into anything that could possibly go wrong. The simulation is such that the crew leaders can throw anomalies at you. You have different scenarios that could happen,” Meuwissen said.
For example, on her team’s mission, the crew encountered a shuttle door closure issue that had to be resolved in “space.”
They also had to do a lot of reading of the manual, said Meuwissen.
In addition to “space missions,” the students did a lot of team-building exercises.
“You have to think and also be physically reliant on each other before you go on the actual mission. We did a lot of preparation with that kind of training,” she added.
The also spent an afternoon in a “lake,” which Meuwissen described as a body of water controlled like a pool. They simulated a space capsule water landing and learned how to escape from it once it lands in water.
In addition to team-building and simulated space and landing missions, the group attended lectures with speakers who are experts in their fields.
“One of the speakers, astronaut Clay Andersen, traveled to the international space station several times. He talked about his training and experience on the station. He also talked about the international component of the space industry and the shift in space research from the 1960s space race to it being more of an international experience. One of his trips was with two Russians. Another one was with a teacher in space, who was also a graduate of the Space Academy,” said Meuwissen.
They were also exposed to important lectures about topics like rocketry and how teachers can bring the information they learn at Space Academy back into the classroom.
“It was not so much questions about what NASA is doing, but more of what we can do as teachers to bring this knowledge and technology to the students,” she said.
Meuwissen has big plans for ways in which she can incorporate what she learned into her classroom curriculum.
In engineering and design projects, she can now advance the projects by having her students work more according to processes used in organizations like NASA.
“If they want to work at NASA after graduation, they need more than just testing,” she said, adding that the activities she participated in will help her impart that knowledge to her students.
As Meuwissen prepares her lesson plans for the upcoming school year, she is also looking ahead at the advanced program offered by Honeywell.
“I would certainly do this again and I will absolutely look into the advanced program down the road,” she said.
She also compiled a lot of information for her students on how they can apply for similar, student programs.
Meuwissen applauded the commitment Honeywell has made to educators.
“They really invest a lot of resources in the teachers, and it’s such a neat experience to work with teachers from all over the world. This was such a different kind of experience. Usually we are getting more content knowledge and lesson plans. This training was a combination of that, as well as exposing us to the physical challenges that, as educators we don’t get to do. It’s great to know there is a company that realizes how important it is for us to be able to think out of the box.”
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