The group of 75 fifth-graders watched the clear Colorado skies with the rapt attention of an audience at a Cape Canaveral rocket launch.
The students weren't alone. They milled on the lawn outside Meadow Point Elementary School with staff, teachers and administrators. The epic, orchestral strains of the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey" blared from a portable P.A. system set up on the grass, and the whole group seemed to share a common breathless anticipation.
They all looked to the heavens as Instructional Technology Coach Dustin Vick joined district STEM officials and other instructors to release a weather balloon into the sky. The sphere made of rubber and filled with helium represented a fairly run-of-the-mill weather experiment, but the crowd gathered at the school watched the balloon ascend with a palpable sense of excitement.
For these students, the launch represented a personal investment in the principles of flight and the science of weather. They'd spent weeks planning for the event, working in teams to come up with the specific payload the balloon would carry. They'd done the math and carried out formulas regarding air pressure, altitude and physics.
"It's very exciting to be able to do such a fun experiment," said 5th-grader Anahi Cabral, 11. "Our class voted on different types of chocolates to put in the balloon," she added, explaining that the purpose is to study the specific effects of different atmospheric conditions on different materials. "We're going to track it with a GPS and see what happens to the solutions we put on it with a GoPro camera."
That kind of personal investment in the outcome of a scientific experiment is the core mission of similar balloon launches taking place all over the district in recent weeks. The Cherry Creek School District's team of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) experts coordinated 16 launches at 15 different schools this academic year. Fifth-graders at each building had direct involvement in the process leading up to the official launches. They had a chance to give their input on the conditions of the experiment; they had an opportunity to see the theories in their science lessons come to life.
"This gives our students a real opportunity to do calculations," said Dr. Richard Charles, STEM coordinator for the district. "They do a lot of math for this experiment … it's a real engineering problem."
In the Meadow Point launch, students voted on what specific materials the balloon would carried. That "payload" included the chocolate determined by Cabral's class, as well as pieces of watermelon and other substances that would show a definite impact from the high-altitude flight.
The results of the experiment were made possible thanks to no small amount of technology. GPS trackers allowed district officials to track its flight path, mark its highest altitude at almost 105,000 feet and retrieve the remains when the balloon came back to earth after an approximately 45-minute fall.
"You see boys and girls loving this experiment. They think it's the coolest thing. I had kids learning how to tie bow knots to tie the payload to the parachute," Vick said after the launch. "Then talking about micro-experiments – whether something is going to explode or freeze – it's something they grasped on to."
The kind of passion and enthusiasm makes Vick's work worthwhile, and it's not always easy work. He's one of the members of the team responsible for retrieving the balloon after its impressive flight.
In this case, that meant trudging all the way to Washington County, east of Greeley, to retrieve the fallen balloon and its data.