When science teacher Karin Paquin set out to improve on a project she began with her kids about Martian colonies last year, she never expected it would lead to her conducting experiments in zero gravity.

“It was amazing! It really was,” she said.

Paquin, 37, who teaches students in 6-8 grade at St. John’s Catholic School in Brunswick, was among the first teachers to do advanced work while weightless earlier this month as part of the national Teachers in Space program. 

The program is a nonprofit that dates back to 2009, and now furthers education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM subjects, through an annual series of workshops for teachers. It produces them in conjunction with private aerospace companies such as Blue Origin and Firefly Aerospace.

“As we move toward space stations, there’s going to be so much to do in space and supporting space. Teachers are the people that can understand that if we bring them to it,” said Teachers in Space President Elizabeth Kennick. “We really want to involve teachers throughout the US in this space industry.” 

Paquin said she first learned of the program while working on a project she started with her students last year. Originally, she said, the students used sophisticated software to simulate the construction and operation of a colony on Mars. The project, she said, impressed both the kids and their parents.

“At the end of last year, I was like, ‘How do I top it this year?’” she said.

The answer came, of all places, from her mother browsing in a local paper and discovering a workshop planned for this summer in Brunswick, so Paquin signed up. 

“I thought it was what I was looking for. It was something to take this Mars Colony and take it to the next level,” she said.

The workshop, held in August 2022, was the first held by Teachers in Space in Maine, and funded by a grant from NASA. Rather than just simulations, the new workshop explored building actual sensors which could be used in a manned mission to Mars one day. The sensors Paquin and her kids are working with, she said, are also similar to those being used on the International Space Station right now. She and the kids assemble “cubes,” or small plastic frames to house the sensor clusters that include UV sensors, gyroscopes and accelerometers, taking measurements such as temperature, humidity and barometric pressure.

Paquin spent the summer workshop learning how to build the clusters, but there was a surprise coming that Paquin didn’t know about: Kennick said the Brunswick workshop was one of three held nationwide — the other two were in New Mexico and Kansas — with a total of about 50 teachers participating. Grants allowed the workshops to include a small team of four teachers on a zero-gravity flight, and the program chose Paquin to be on the team.

One reason Paquin made the team, Kennick said, was how quickly she took to the hands-on nature of working with the sensors.

“She was the first person to build a working cube set with every single sensor we taught all in there at once and all working. Nobody’s done that before, so she really impressed us,” she said.

Paquin said the letter informing her that she made the team took her completely by surprise.

“I had tears in my eyes, because I strive to bring real science into my classroom. I want my students to be able to apply it to something that’s important, that’s really happening, and I want them to see the uses in it,” she said.

Paquin took to the skies twice, on Nov. 3 and Nov. 14. From a base in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., she and the team took off in a Boeing 727 aircraft up to a height of 32,000 feet, then dropped to 24,000 feet. During both flights, they did a total of 45 drops. Each time, for 18-22 seconds, the plane was in free-fall, and everything in it, including Paquin, floated as though weightless.

Paquin said the sensation is impossible to accurately describe. It’s not like a roller coaster, she said, where she might feel her stomach drop along with the rest of her. Instead, she said, her best description of the experience was “free, feeling completely free.”

Like astronauts in space, Paquin said, she had to learn how to move about the cabin differently.

“Your arms, and kicking and moving your arms don’t work. You need to use the walls,” she said.

There was plenty of work to do during the flights. Paquin said she and her teammates conducted experiments to see how the instrument clusters in the cube behaved in a weightless environment, and monitored changes in their own vital signs such as heart rate and blood oxygen levels, but there was enough time to just take in the experience, too. 

“Once we were done with the actual experiments, I started having a little fun. I did some handstand pushups and some somersaults,” she said.

Paquin took what she learned back to the classroom, including the flight suit they let her keep, which she plans to wear during lessons. She also brought back the instrument cluster cubes she built, and a collection of new sensors that her students are now using to build their own clusters. 

“I think they’re more excited, because last year they did the simulation and they did that kind of thing and then they built cardboard colonies of 3-D models, but this year is a little bit the next step up for them, challenging them more,” she said.

It’s complex and technical, Paquin said, but there are also life skills built into the project, like how to try again if the students fail to make the sensors work properly the first time.

“It frustrates them, and I think that’s important, too, right? Because they need to learn to problem solve and work through those things, and that’s what the engineering design process does,” she said. “It teaches them troubleshooting, perseverance, so yeah, things can get hard and things break, but if we just stopped, then we never would have made it to space.”

Paquin said the classroom project officially ends on March 23, but she expects experiments to continue throughout the spring, hopefully ending with a weather balloon launch.

Already, Paquin is working on one-upping her efforts, by writing a grant proposal for funding for a new Teachers in Space project for next year.

Kennick said the Brunswick workshop was a success, and when asked if Teachers in Space will return next summer, said, “We would certainly be open to it. If somebody wants us back, we will come back.”