Frigid temperatures couldn't keep the crowd away from the Grandview High School grounds during the early morning hours of Nov. 21.
On this crisp Saturday morning immediately after one of the first significant snowfalls of the year, hundreds of students from across the Cherry Creek School District joined parents, teachers, staff members and other community representatives to brave the cold on the Grandview lawn. They watched intently as a weather balloon made of rubber and filled with helium floated just above their heads; 7News Chief Meteorologist Mike Nelson stood in the center of the gathering, offering context and facts about the impending experiment.
The experiment was relatively run of the mill – the National Weather Service launches similar weather balloons on a daily basis to gauge atmospheric conditions. Still, as the crowd counted down for the formal balloon launch and the massive white sphere floated skyward, it was impossible to escape a special sense of extravagance, wonder and magic.
It was exactly the kind of atmosphere organizers wanted to create for the Cherry Creek School District's first annual STEAM-a-Palooza, a celebration of science, technology, engineering, art and math that spanned an entire afternoon.
The balloon launch served as the informal launch of the event; after the balloon disappeared into the clear blue sky, attendees headed into Grandview to watch student-led displays of ingenuity and research.
Billed as a "Junkyard Challenge," the event offered students from across the district insights into the programs that commence in elementary school and develop through middle and high school tracks. From robotics demonstrations to artwork created with the latest, cutting-edge software and 3-D printers, the event displayed a fusion of scientific know-how and creative brilliance.
"This event is designed to show the community that the Cherry Creek School District is very involved in STEM and building 21st-century skills," said Rob Combs, a technology teacher at Grandview who helped organize the event. He added that including the arts component with the traditional Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics components was a priority in organizing the event. "Teaching students art along with STEM is teaching kids how to think creatively and how to come up with solutions to a problem."
The balance between scientific ingenuity and creative problem-solving was on display across the school, as elementary and middle school students operated individually designed robots via remote controls and high school students showed off graphic arts and architecture projects.
Even the opening weather balloon launch fused elements of pure science and artistic flair. The balloon itself had a purely scientific purpose, one that would offer valuable data about the local atmospheric conditions.
"The kids are doing exactly what the National Weather Service does every day," Mike Nelson said after the launch. A screen set up in the Grandview lobby beamed data figures about the position of the balloon and the status of its payload. "You might think this is archaic in the age of supercomputers and satellites … but in the lowest part of the atmosphere, the first 10,000 to 20,000 feet, it gives us very high-resolution data of temperature profiles and moisture. That's really important information."
At the same time, it took creative skill and a degree of artistry to finalize the design of the balloon and put it together. The launch held an element of theatricality, the same kind of drama that caught Nelson's attention during similar experiments conducted during childhood.
"When I was kid, we had this unbelievable thunderstorm with tornado warnings and large hail and trees down. Even though it was a destructive storm, I thought it was one of the most exciting thing I'd ever seen," Nelson recalled. "That's what inspired me to be a meteorologist. I'm inspired and encouraged by the turnout – the more that we get our young people to be wanting to be scientists and engineers, that's the key to solving a lot of the issues that we face."
With a turnout numbering in the thousands, the district's premiere STEAM-a-Palooza event made an impressive amount of progress in realizing that mission.
"I'm amazed that we got this many people here on the first try," Combs said. "Our attention is to make this an annual event. Every year, we want to make it a little bit bigger, a little bit better."