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NORMAL — Maybe elementary and junior high school students can't take a ride on the “vomit comet” to experience zero gravity. But they can get a taste of how astronauts train for working in micro-gravity in a swimming pool.

That's what 16 students entering sixth- through eighth-grade have been doing this week at Normal Community West High School in the Challenger Learning Center's International Space Station Underwater Adventure. It's part of Heartland Community College's Youth Enrichment Program.

Stacey Shrewsbury, the Challenger center's lead flight director, said, “This is how the astronauts train.”

Like the astronauts, the students learn they have to move slowly and carefully as they work to assemble modules that simulate the International Space Station.

“It's harder than you think,” said 11-year-old Josie Melrose of Bloomington, who will be a sixth-grader at Evans Junior High School this fall. “It takes some time to get used to it.”

Laura Pulley, 12, of Downs, has wanted to take the class for a couple of years but it wasn't offered last year and she was too young the year before.

“I love to explore and learn — especially about space,” said Laura, who will be a seventh-grader at Tri-Valley. She did a Challenger center mission on a school field trip and said, “ever since then, I've wanted to be an astronaut.”

The students are using snorkeling equipment and a device similar to scuba equipment called a sea breathe. The sea breathe floats on the surface of the pool and two students at a time wear masks connected to it with hoses, breathing as they would with scuba gear.

Using the sea breathe and learning about scuba techniques, although it is not a scuba class, is the favorite part of the course for Rylan Nelson of Normal. But the 12-year-old, who will be in seventh-grade at Metcalf School, said he also likes learning about space and the International Space Station.

“I like how they show us all of the science around it,” he said.

But the students are learning more than science and snorkeling.

“We will work on teamwork every day,” said Shrewsbury.

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That happens both in and out of the pool.

For example, they had a group activity where everyone was standing on a space blanket to protect them from the “toxic” surface of the “planet” they were on — actually a classroom. They had to figure out how to reverse the blanket without losing any of their fellow “astronauts.”

About a third of the class wound up stepping off the blanket the first day, Shrewsbury said. But, by the second day, their communication and strategy skills improved and no one touched the “toxic” ground.

Another lesson is the importance of practice and training.

By Day 5, the students will be able to assemble the space station underwater in about an hour — but the final task will be preceded by six or seven of practice, explained Shrewsbury.

“That's about what it is for astronauts,” she said — at least six or seven hours of practice for an hourlong spacewalk.

“They'll understand it's not just about being an astronaut, but in life it takes time and it takes practice and you have to work as a team,” said Shrewsbury.

Josie was confident she and her fellow students would be ready when their parents came to watch.

“I think by Friday we'll totally have it mastered,” she said.

Mike Burt, a chemistry teacher at Normal West, who also teaches earth and space science, is helping with the class. He said it's a good opportunity to learn more about the Challenger center.

“Even though they're just down the street, I had no idea they had all these resources,” he said.

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Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter @Pg_Sobota

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