An Uplifting Achievement

Students in a Kenowa Hills STEM program literally watched their ideas soar into the atmosphere at the end of the school year.

The freshmen and sophomores in the two-year-old program highlighting applications of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) competed to design a payload for a weather balloon. The winning teammates saw their plans launched 85,000 feet into the sky in June.

The goal of the Capstone project was two-fold: to load a weather balloon with gear light enough to travel very high but sophisticated enough to capture images under challenging conditions, and then to recover it. Students calculated the flight based on weight and wind speed.

Federal Aviation Administration regulations cap the weight for such a flight at four pounds. Students also had to figure out how to position materials in the payload to optimize the ability to capture images.

“As students get older, you need big projects that get them engaged and thinking big picture and getting away from some of the content focus to really dig in,” said Lance Jones, the math teacher who helps to run the district’s K-10 STEM program along with science teacher Jeremy Cusick.

Under the winning design, the balloon was equipped with a Canon camera and a GoPro with a battery pack wrapped with hand warmers to survive the cold temperatures. In addition, a GPS signaling device was attached to help track the flight and locate the materials after landing.

But right after launch, the GPS stopped signaling—meaning identifying information attached to the payload would be the crew’s only hope of retrieving their gear and images if a passerby found it, Jones said.

“We were getting discouraged and thinking maybe we had lost it,” he said. “We had just gotten back from lunch when the app on my phone that was connected to the GPS pinged a spot, so we jumped in a van and drove there.”

His students’ calculations of where the parachuted materials would land were very close to the farm field where they were found, about 100 miles east in Eaton Rapids, Jones added. They asked the homeowner for permission to scout the property and retrieved the payload.

The GoPro captured stunning images of the flight and Earth’s atmosphere, but turbulence apparently turned off the Canon camera which was shooting video. Based on their data, calculations, and photographs, students estimate the balloon traveled more than twice as high as the average commercial airliner.

“Many of the kids have been on planes, and they think of that as being very high, but it’s another thing to see what camera views look like from two or three times that high – especially when the camera turns up toward space,” Jones said.

In some photos, the ground can be seen with a familiar quilt-like appearance from an airplane-level view. Later images appear like the products of a NASA mission: Puffs of clouds appear far below, and layers of the Earth’s atmosphere can be observed. White bits of the burst balloon showed up in one picture after the parachute deployed.

Next year, the two MEA member teachers hope to add data-collecting devices for running experiments during a flight. For now, the students in their combined 9-10 class – which meets for two hours each day in donated space at a local manufacturing facility – enjoyed the challenge of calculating the balloon’s travel and re-entry.

“You learn a lot more when it’s really hands-on like this,” Jones said.

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