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Out of this world: Local teacher goes to Space Camp, brings back a surprise

Abram Schwartz, left, a teacher at Bemidji Middle School, rides the "1/6th Gravity Chair," a chair that simulates the feeling of walking on the moon, during the 2011 Honeywell Educators @ Space Academy program he attended at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. Submitted photo

Abram Schwartz, a teacher at Bemidji Middle School, knows what it feels like to walk on the moon.

He recently spent one week experiencing weightlessness, building rockets and commanding a crew of fellow teachers in an International Space Center simulator at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Schwartz was awarded a scholarship to attend the 2011 Honeywell Educators @ Space Academy program from June 15-24. The program is designed for teachers to inspire students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM.

Schwartz was among 250 teachers from 27 countries and 47 states who attended the program. His experience involved real-life astronaut training including a high-performance jet simulation, scenario-based space missions, and land and water survival training.

Because Schwartz showed enthusiasm and was eager to participate in activities, he was given a "Right Stuff" award during the program's commencement ceremony. Schwartz was surprised to learn his award came with a free Space Camp scholarship to give to a student of his choice.

"I had no idea what I was getting into before I went," Schwartz said. "It far surpassed what I thought it was going to be."

Upon arrival, Schwartz was placed into a group, which was given two simulated space shuttle missions. Schwartz was designated as a shuttle pilot during one mission and served as a station commander during another mission.

Throughout the week teachers had to work together to achieve the tasks of their mission, such as completing a satellite repair or construction on the International Space Center.

"I didn't know a single person there when I first came and now I have, like, 20 people who are like family to me," Schwartz said. "It was amazing."

As part of the training exercises, Schwartz sat in a chair that simulated walking on the moon in an almost frictionless environment. He also participated in an aviation challenge, which simulated what it would be like to land in the water with a parachute or be rescued from the water by a helicopter.

One of the most challenging tasks, he said, was learning all of the acronyms, such as "ISS," which stands for International Space Center.

During both of Schwartz's missions, the group of astronaut teachers was required to dock their space shuttle at the Space Center.

While there, Schwartz and other teachers were tasked with completing middle school science experiments, such as extracting the green color out of plants.

Occasionally, he said, different scenarios would unexpectedly be thrown at the teachers, such as how to survive a solar flare occurrence.

"We had to cover ourselves in these solar blankets and lights would start flashing," Schwartz said. "It was just a blast. You were just having fun."

With all of the activities he took part in, Schwartz said the best part of the experience was meeting other teachers.

"Every one of these teachers received a scholarship," he said. "They were all there for one reason - to make themselves better teachers."

This fall Schwartz will begin his second year at BMS. He previously taught for seven years at Lincoln Elementary School. Schwartz will teach a half-day of sixth-grade math at BMS, as well as a half-day of STEM, a new elective course for students in grades 6-8.

"I learned so much about space travel," he said. "My goal is to bring all of this information I learned back to the classroom, wrap it and bowtie it into something that it can be a true STEM activity."

Schwartz said he foresees students participating in a moon mission, where students would stimulate life on the moon.

"I really foresee someone I'm teaching in this generation going to Mars," Schwartz added. "It's just that knowledge of knowing that I very possibly could be educating astronauts of the future that is so exciting."

Schwartz has been an active member of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics. He was recently tagged as the affiliate state representative for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Although school is out for the summer, Schwartz said he will be keeping plenty busy this summer.

From July 11-15, he plans to attend a Science Museum of Minnesota's Leadership in Engineering conference. Later this summer Schwartz also plans to attend the 2011 Affiliate Leaders Conference, hosted by the NCTM, in Denver, Colo.