What is the Chaplain doing on the STEM tour?

One of the reasons parents choose to send their students to our schools is because of the many amazing opportunities that we offer. Many of these opportunities are simply built into the daily life of our school through the programs we regularly offer students. Some of these opportunities are optional addition activities for interested students. For a number of years many of our schools have been running overseas tours with a sporting, artistic, service or historical focus. A more recent addition to the range of tours being offered is the STEM tour.

2019 saw Mentone Grammar, where I work, offer our inaugural STEM tour to the USA to enable students to experience Space Camp in Huntsville Alabama.  Two years ago our Head of Science raised the possibility of a STEM tour and was overwhelmed by interest from students. The tour was up and running and interest from staff to accompany the group was understandably high.

Not surprisingly the accompanying staff were initially drawn largely from the science learning area however, at the end of last year, with a bit of movement of staff I was asked if I would be willing to go. There was some questioning from staff about the appropriateness of the Chaplain going on the STEM tour. Apparently my regular struggles with our school photocopiers wasn’t inspiring confidence in my ability to make a helpful contribution to such a high tech tour.

In the weeks leading up to the tour, one member of the science department (well known for his bluntness) came up to me during the busyness of the staff room at a morning tea break demanding to know why I was going on the  STEM tour. I happily replied that I was the school expert on STEM. He responded ‘how on earth do you figure that?’ I said ‘S.T.E.M. – Sacrament, Theology, Eucharist and Mass. Who knows more about these things than the chaplain?’ Not picking up on my attempt at humour he retorted ‘that’s not what STEM stands for!’ but by now the rest of the staff room was in on the joke.

Soon I was on the plane with four other staff and thirty seven extremely excited students for the STEM adventure of a lifetime.

We began in San Francisco having a good look at Silicon Valley, Intel, Google, the Computer History Museum and my highlight the National Ignition Facility (NIF). Prior to going on the tour I have to confess to never having heard of the NIF, but it was a good example of what is amazing about going on a student tour. The NIF is part of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and is the world’s largest and most powerful laser array. It is not open to the general public but they do allow school tours. We made our way through an impressive security vetting procedure that involved mirrors being run under our bus to check for explosives. NIF was conceptually mind blowing. For example, when they fire the laser array it uses more power than 1000 times the power that the whole United States is using at that moment. Facts like that were casually imparted by our tour guide, one of the scientists working at the facility.  

After San Francisco went headed to the National Space and Rocket Centre in Huntsville Alabama for Space Camp. I had been part of the pre tour briefing but that hadn’t prepared me for experiencing this amazing place firsthand. At Space Camp students have a week long immersive experience in the life of an astronaut. They train for and then undertake a series of missions using a range of impressive simulators. I watched as a group of students undertook a mission that involved some in mission control communicating with other students in the shuttle simulator who were in turn instructing other students doing a spacewalk to repair a broken satellite. Our students quickly appreciated the amazing learning experiences that they were being offered and well and truly made the most of them. As staff, it was wonderful to see the joy on their faces after they came back from each new experience.

Space Camp is such a great learning environment it is well worth travelling half way around the world to experience it. There were aviation simulators, a massive climbing wall, opportunities to build and then launching rockets, a huge underwater tank where students in scuba gear could get a taste of working in low gravity, to name just a few of the activities the students undertook.  The National Space and Rocket Centre does much more than just host the Space Camp program – it is a museum, display centre and a space theme park. To have the run of the place as you do attending Space Camp makes for a week of unforgettable experiences. I quickly became very used to seeing people walking around in space suits and encountering rockets and space vehicles around every corner I turned.  

The STEM tour took place over the Easter holidays break which led to some interesting personal experiences for me. Holy Week happened to be  while we were at Space Camp and a surreal moment came for me on Maundy Thursday when I had dinner under the thirty five story Saturn V rocket they have on display. As I ate my dinner under this massive symbol of human power, I recalled what day it was and had cause to pause and remember Jesus humbly washing the disciples’ feet.

After Space Camp we headed to Washington. There is no doubt America knows how to do a world class museum. My favourite of the many that we experienced was the  Udvar-Hazey National Air and Space Museum. We saw an amazing range of aircraft including a Concorde and the Enola Gay which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

The STEM tour included many great experiences. What better way to end a lesson on aerodynamics than by actually flying yourself. That is what happened when we went to iFly in Orlando, Florida. Students had a theory lesson followed up by watching various objects fly around the wind chamber and then they got to suit up and have a go at flying themselves. iFly gives you a chance to experience what is like to fly without having to use a parachute, and unlike Space Camp where the students did the fun stuff and the teachers watched on, at iFly the teachers also got to have a go.

Our dance teacher flew with grace and poise, our science teacher flew with all the insight of someone who really understood the physics behind it and I flew like someone who was proudly living out the truth in the saying ‘if God had meant us to fly he would have given us wings’. While I certainly didn’t win any awards for aerodynamics, my flight was an unforgettable experience, and has provided video footage that has greatly amused students back at school when it gets shown.

In Orlando, we visited the Kennedy Space Centre, which has a wonderful presentation on the Space Shuttle. We went into a theatrette to watch a movie on the history of the Space Shuttle program. At the conclusion of the movie the screen (which is a curtain) dramatically rises up and there before you in all its glory is the Space Shuttle Atlantis proudly on display. It was surprisingly moving and I found myself getting teary over STEM, which was a new experience for me. We then had lunch with an astronaut, Jon McBride, to hear his firsthand experiences on the shuttle before going on a tour of the Cape and the various rocket launch sites.

Looking back on the tour, I don’t think I have ever used the word ‘amazing’ so much in two and a half weeks (and in this article writing it up). Our schools regularly offer many wonderful learning experiences and sometimes you can wonder if our students simply take them for granted. With the STEM tour, our students really appreciated what an amazing experience that they had. They came back very thankful to their parents for going the extra mile to enable them attend, deeply appreciative to their school for facilitating it and with an expanded vision for the role STEM that can play in our world and their part in it. Mission well and truly accomplished.

This article was originally written for the October 2019 edition of the Anglican Schools Australia newsletter and I thank the editor for kindly allowing me to reproduce it here.

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