Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Near-Space Science: A Ballooning Project to Engage Students with Space beyond the Big Screen

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Near-Space Science: A Ballooning Project to Engage Students with Space beyond the Big Screen

Article excerpt

Many of your students probably know something about space from playing computer games or watching movies and TV shows. But you can expose them to the real thing by launching their experiments into near space on a weather balloon.

This article describes how to use high-altitude ballooning (HAB) as a culminating project to a chemistry unit on experimental design, gas laws, and air pollution. We describe how to design an instructional unit and perform a balloon launch, and we provide examples of student projects. We hope your students enjoy this real-life taste of space as much as ours did.

Ballooning background

HABs are filled with helium or hydrogen and released into the stratosphere (for student projects, only helium is acceptable, due to hydrogen's flammability); scientists often use a weather ballon (a type of HAB) to conduct experiments in near space--at altitudes above 99% of Earth's atmosphere. Many research projects require scientists to collaborate with engineers to develop the technology they need for such experiments. For example, when NASA launches a new space mission, the scientists tell the engineers what data the spacecraft should collect, and the engineers tell the scientists the design constraints of their instruments, such as limits on size, weight, and power consumption.

Ballooning engages high school students in a similar interaction and thus aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards' (NGSS) emphasis on science and engineering practices (NGSS Lead States 2013); the project is inherently interdisciplinary and can cover the range of NGSS disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts.

Our near-space adventure

We undertook our own HAB project in spring 2013 as part of an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme chemistry course at Curie Metro High School in Chicago. Eighty percent of the students are Hispanic, and 95% come from low-income families.

More than 80 students in three sections of the course participated in our project. The textbook we use, the American Chemical Society's Chemistry in the Community (ACS 2011), worked well because it allowed us to integrate ballooning as part of a Putting It All Together Project (PIAT)--something the textbook includes at the end of each unit. We selected "Unit 2--Air: Designing Scientific Investigations" because it covers many concepts that are relevant for balloon experiments, such as

* experimental design,

* gas laws,

* kinetic molecular theory,

* atmospheric properties, and

* air pollution.

Students designed and launched 12 different experiments based on their understanding of these concepts. For example, one group investigated the effect of changing atmospheric conditions on the propagation of sound waves. They played a single-frequency tone using an MP3 player connected to a speaker and measured its volume using a sound level meter. The following sections describe the project in more detail.

Project breakdown

We divided the project into five segments:

* review of literature,

* experimental design,

* collecting and presenting data,

* conclusions and evaluation, and

* oral presentations.

The time requirements shown in Figure 1 are based on a two-week PIAT project and can be adapted to other time frames.

Review of literature

At the end of Unit 2--Air: Designing Scientific Investigations, students formed their own PIAT teams, selected research topics, and developed research questions. Their questions included:

* How do different liquids cool and freeze when exposed to the low temperature in the upper atmosphere?

* How does the ozone layer affect ultraviolet light intensity?

* Does the ideal gas law hold true in Earth's upper atmosphere?

Each student team then conducted a literature review and summarized key results of previous research related to their research question. …

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