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Monday, September 18, 2006

‘Weightless Lumbees’ to take message across N.C.

A $5,000 grant from the N.C. Space Grant Consortium will spread the word about UNC Pembroke’s micro-gravity student research program with NASA (National Aeronautical Space Administration). 

At NASA’s Houston facility UNCP students (from left) Megan Grimsley, Janet Sanford and Brandon Locklear

At NASA’s Houston facility UNCP students (from left) Megan Grimsley, Janet Sanford and Brandon Locklear

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A student group from UNCP, dubbed the Weightless Lumbees, traveled for the third time in August to Houston, Texas, to conduct scientific experiments aboard NASA’s C-9 aircraft in weightless conditions.

The goal of the one-year grant program is to make presentations to American Indian school children across North Carolina.

“This project is an excellent opportunity for our science majors,” said program advisor and physics professor Dr. Tim Ritter. “It provides them a very full research experience, including proposal writing, experiment design, equipment construction, testing, data acquisition, analysis and report writing.

“And, presenting to other students about their work is also a great experience,” Dr. Ritter said.

Three presentations were made this summer. Dr. Ritter traveled to Chapel Hill, N.C., to speak to 150 high school students participating in the North Carolina Native American Youth Organization (NCNAYO) Summer Conference. UNCP students Megan Grimsley and Charlotte Branch traveled to UNC Charlotte to present to 45 ninth graders, who were participating in a summer enrichment program. The final presentation was made at UNCP at the summer Health Careers Opportunity Program.

Future presentations will be made in Cherokee, N.C., the northeast, the Triangle area and the counties surrounding Robeson County.

“By doing this we hope to reach some of the other Native communities around the state in addition to our local Lumbee population,” Dr. Ritter said. “Our goal is to make one or two presentations per month.”

The Weightless Lumbees traveled to Houston, on August 1 and returned 10 days later. Student participants were Janet Sanford, of Laurinburg, N.C., Brandon Locklear of Pembroke, N.C., and Megan Grimsley of Laurinburg, N.C.  Sanford and Locklear are in graduate school at Colorado State University, and Grimsley is a senior chemistry and biology major.

Thirty college teams participated in NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Program last summer. Students wrote proposals to NASA and designed experiments, built and tested equipment. 

The Weightless Lumbees performed two experiments, one for science and one for outreach. The first experiment investigated the reaction between an enzyme and its substrate to understand the effects of gravity on the rate of reaction. The samples will be compared to analogous samples created in the laboratory. 

The second experiment, for outreach purposes, looked at the kinematics of falling spheres in a viscous fluid. Metal spheres were dropped in two different thick fluids and videotaped. The video from this will be used in outreach presentations to demonstrate to the students what effects gravity, or the lack thereof, has on the motion of objects.

The team’s laboratory was at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, aboard NASA’s “Weightless Wonder,” a C-9 aircraft that can produce periods of weightlessness lasting up to 25 seconds at a time. By flying a series of roller coaster-like climbs and dips, the plane is able to simulate weightlessness and gravitational forces similar to that of the moon and Mars.

“During their flights, the students have been able to explore scientific concepts that will be needed for our future missions back to the moon, then on to Mars and beyond,” said NASA University Affairs Officer Donn Sickorez.  “Their skills will help them become our next generation of explorers, maybe even the next generation of astronauts.”

For more information about the Weightless Lumbees, Dr. Ritter may be contacted at 910.521.6320 or email tim.ritter@uncp.edu.

“The Weightless Lumbees would like to thank Provost Dr. Charles Harrington, Sheila Brayboy (HCOP) office and the Department of Chemistry and Physics for their generous financial support,” Dr. Ritter said. “Without their help we would not have been able to make this year's team a reality.”

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