Learning reached new heights – literally and figuratively – for 21 Challenge School students enrolled in a six week mini-course called “Up, up and away.” At 8:30 a.m. on Feb. 17, the students launched a high-altitude balloon that traveled to 95,000 feet above the earth’s surface. That’s three times higher than airplanes fly.
“Space is awesome! Building something and flying it to nearly 100,000 feet up is a cool way to learn about Earth and space,” said John Wiley, the Challenge science teacher who teaches the mini-course.
His students agree, especially eighth-grader Sreekar Tiruchunapally, who is a balloon launch veteran.
“I’ve sent up near-space balloons twice and it was really fun and it helped me learn about our atmosphere,” Tiruchunapally said.
Before the launch, the balloon was loaded with high-tech but lightweight equipment to record data about the trip, including the fact that it experienced temperatures below -50 degrees centigrade. A camera captured stunning images from the edge of space, including one of a Star Wars Death Star model students created with a 3D printer and mounted on the balloon.
“We were able to see the edge of space, huge views of Colorado and the Death Star floating above it all,” Wiley said.
The balloon also carried student experiments designed to assess the effects of things like pressure, temperature and ultraviolet radiation on items such as plants, popcorn kernels and yeast.
“We took one ingredient out of a cupcake recipe and wanted to see if it changed the taste if it was sent to near-space or stayed on earth,” said the team of Jasmine Riviera, Abielle Alemayehu, Francesca Wieck and Amber Brooks.
Students worked in small groups to develop and design their experiments. They used science, engineering, technology and mathematics, or STEM, skills as well as creativity and critical thinking. They had to be specific about size, weight and budget.
“Student engagement was through the roof,” said Wiley, about the dedication students displayed. “There was lots of independence and interdisciplinary learning taking place.”
A GPS helped locate the balloon when it landed 170 miles away from the school in a field near Walsenburg, Colo. Wiley recovered the balloon and students began analyzing the data.
“We were not successful in gathering bacteria from the upper atmosphere, but everyone was in high spirits about the learning and cool images we gathered,” said Wiley.
“We liked this mini-course because we learned what happens when we put stuff into near space,” agreed fifth-graders Yusuf Hanif and Alyssa Ducharme.