PORT RICHEY - Fox Hollow Elementary teacher Jeffrey DeSantis counted on a challenge when he signed up for the Honeywell Educators @ Space Academy program, so he was undaunted when it came time to board the academy's Multi-Axis Trainer, which creates the sensation of being aboard a tumbling aircraft.
Ten teachers eyed the machine and opted out. DeSantis opted in.
"That was a little bit tough," DeSantis said. "You were spinning around upside down and all over the place for about a minute."
Not to worry. He was assured he could abort the mission if necessary.
"They told me if I felt sick I could yell out stop and they would stop for me," he said.
DeSantis, who teaches third-grade at Fox Hollow, is now eager to return to school this fall and share with his students the math and science lessons he picked up while participating in the academy, which was held last month at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.
"It was a wonderful, life-changing experience for me," he said.
DeSantis was one of 210 teachers from 27 countries and 42 states who were awarded Space Academy scholarships by Honeywell. At the five-day academy, the teachers participated in simulated astronaut training and a professional development program designed to improve education in science, technology, engineering and math, often referred to as STEM education.
"One of the great things about the academy is you work in a team," DeSantis said. "It's all teamwork and it's an international experience."
His team included educators from China, Switzerland, South Africa and Ireland, as well as teachers from throughout the U.S.
Kerry Kennedy, director of Honeywell Hometown Solutions, a community outreach section of Honeywell International Inc., said the company is concerned about school budget cuts and data that show American students falling behind young people in other countries when it comes to the STEM disciplines.
Honeywell is trying to fill the gap by creating a pipeline of talented young people who will become future scientists, engineers and mathematicians. Part of that effort is training teachers at the Space Academy, which has graduated 1,756 teachers since the program began in 2004.
"When teachers complete the five-day mission they return to the classroom brimming with ideas," Kennedy said in a prepared statement. "Many of them wear their flight suits, and the students love it. They are reinvigorated and talk about their experiences and share new ideas and concepts with their students."
DeSantis said his interest in the Space Academy was piqued by a story in his students' third-grade reading program about children who go to space camp. Later, a friend who attended the academy extolled its virtues to him and he applied.
He described the academy as a nice mixture of hands-on activities and tips on how to bring the lessons learned to the classroom. Most of the educators were middle and high school teachers, but the academy staff gave him ideas on how to adapt the projects for his elementary students.
One fun activity, he said, was the one-sixth-gravity device that simulated gravity on the lunar surface.
"You were hooked to a machine and it felt almost like you were floating," DeSantis said.
Simulations the teachers participated in included making repairs on a lunar base and handling equipment failure on the international space station. The teachers also launched model rockets, dabbled in robotics, built a heat shield to protect an egg and filtered impurities out of water.
DeSantis, a New York native who taught in his home state and on an Apache reservation in Arizona before coming to Pasco County about seven years ago, said one of the third-grade science units involves learning about the solar system.
He figures his mock space-travel adventure should provide plenty of fodder when it comes time for his students to explore what's out beyond the Earth's atmosphere.