ATLANTA – Atlanta International School (AIS) 11th grade honors student Kayley Walker recently participated in a zero-gravity flight at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Walker was chosen as a Spotlight Scholar through a collaboration among the Hines Family Foundation (HFF), Atlanta International School, Mercer University STEM Education and Innovation (SEI) Lab and the Georgia Space Grant Consortium.

She will also participate in an Oko-STEM summer research experience for high school students to be held on Mercer’s Atlanta campus in July. The mission of the Oko-STEM Project is to enable underserved individuals and communities to become viable contributors to the 21st-century global workforce through developing local talent, expanding opportunities and supporting education for underrepresented and under-resourced students.

Walker and AIS administrator Dr. Marsha Maxwell traveled to NASA Kennedy Space Center on May 9 to participate in the zero-G flight. Walker was able to participate in this unique opportunity thanks to a generous donation from a NASA-connected benefactor. Retired astronauts Charlie Duke and Nicole Stott also participated in the flight.

“I genuinely and truly appreciated the once-in-a-lifetime experience I had to participate in a zero-gravity flight,” said Walker. “The feeling of zero-G is indescribably euphoric and different; it will be something I’ll remember for a long time and hopefully achieve again.”

Following the flight, Walker attended a reception with NASA astronauts, flight engineers and sponsors.

“It was wonderful to see the full arc of human exploration of space on display in that room with Charlie Duke there as a representative of the original Apollo program, Nicole Stott a member of the shuttle program and Kayley representing the generation that will take us to Mars and beyond,” said Dr. Maxwell.

“On the flight, I attempted to do a couple of flips and tricks and it was definitely harder than I thought, but all the fun was in trying. The overall experience was surreal as I was able to fly with and meet two renowned astronauts, Charlie Duke and Nicole Stott, with whom I had the most fascinating conversations. The zero-G flight will stay standing as one of the greatest opportunities I have ever been offered in my life, and I am forever grateful to all the people who made it possible,” added Walker.

This summer, Walker will continue her adventures in STEM education as a participant in a two-week summer research experience for high school students that will be hosted on Mercer’s Atlanta campus. This experience is part of the Oko-STEM Project, sponsored by the recently formed HFF STEM Education and Training Alliance or H-SETA, of which Mercer’s SEI Lab is a member organization.

“HFF, via the H-SETA network and our association with Christina Korp and Purpose Entertainment, was able to rapidly facilitate and enable Kayley’s participation on the inaugural ‘Space for a Better World’ curated zero-G experience,” said John Hines, executive director of HFF and former chief technologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “HFF looks forward to continuing these fruitful and engaging collaborations to explore innovative ways we can use space-related experiences and technologies to motivate underserved students of all ages to pursue STEM related 21st-century workforce careers.”

During the two-week summer research experience, students will participate in project-based learning activities intended to model science experiments and engineering and design projects currently being studied by NASA researchers. Students will engage with technologies such as weather/surveillance balloons, aerial drones and rovers. They will also visit Georgia Tech’s Mechatronics Lab and Mercer’s Molecular Biology Lab. Additionally, students will interact directly with researchers from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and Ames Research Center.

Kennedy Space Center researchers Dr. Oscar Monje and Dr. Jeff Smith will engage with participants in the Oko-STEM research experience. They will share insights from their research on the impacts and effects spaceflight on plant propagation and technology developments related to NASA’s Artemis program to return humans to the moon. The first in the series of three missions is slated to launch on Nov. 4.

Mercer faculty and graduate researchers from Ph.D. programs at Mercer and Georgia Tech will support the implementation of the Oko-STEM Project. Following summer research activities, faculty and graduate researchers will assist educators at partnering schools with integrating space, climate and AgSTEM into the academic curriculum.

“The implementation of the Oko-STEM Project represents an enormous opportunity to broaden participation in STEM among Georgia’s students and provide valuable insights into effective ways for engaging with underserved student populations in high-impact STEM education activities,” said Dr. Justin Ballenger, director of Mercer’s SEI Lab.

About the College of Education

Mercer University’s Tift College of Education – with campuses in Macon, Atlanta and the University’s two regional academic centers – prepares more professional educators than any other private institution in Georgia. Named for the former women’s college that merged with Mercer in 1986, the College of Education offers baccalaureate and graduate degrees, and is guided by the conceptual framework of the “Transforming Educator,” which supports those who aspire to grow professionally throughout their careers, while also seeking to transform the lives of students. For more information, visit education.mercer.edu.

Kyle is the director of media relations at Mercer. In addition to being the primary media contact for most academic and administrative units of the university, he coordinates hometown and university news releases and serves as editor of the News@Mercer e-newsletter and Reach magazine.​