Student Experiments to See the Edge of Space
Posted: Friday, August 19th, 2016
by Joanne Michael
Three years ago, I had a dream- I wanted to work with my students to send a weather balloon with experiments into the edge of space. I had colleagues around the country that had done it with their schools, and I was loving every moment of their stories. Their students were coming up with the experiments, talking with scientists, spending months learning about meteorology, weather patterns, calculating the speed and trajectory- all things that I wanted to have my students experience. Not knowing how to fund it, or really how to do it in the first place, I tried writing grants, getting sponsors, talking to aerospace companies, but came up empty-handed. My school district is located in a very financially wealthy area, and so we do not qualify for many grants. In addition, I teach elementary school (I’m a hands-on science educator, teaching the entire K-5 school), and the majority of grants that my area would allow my to apply for were for middle and high school teachers- not elementary.
This past year, my district’s Education Foundation started a new grant- “Teachers Driving Innovation”, which provided funds for teachers to do out-of-the-box projects and experiences. After applying and winning a grant, 34 students were selected out of the school (1 or 2 students out of every class, and selected by their classroom teacher, to not promote favoritism by me), based on their love of science, personal drive, and ability to work with others.
If a payload is under 4 pounds, and has no transmitting capabilities (with the exception of radio or GPS communications), the FAA technically can’t “do” anything. However, it is considerably better to let them know of what you are doing if you want to launch in a relatively populated area. Not only is it a pretty easy process, it teaches the students how to go about governmental procedures in an appropriate way, and how different organizations work with each other. Most locations can launch from their school’s field or parking lot without a problem. However, I teach in the direct flight path of LAX- we watched Endeavour land at LAX from our playfield! I was thinking about heading out into the desert, where we would be fine, but also wanted my students to be able to be a part of the launch, and knew that the majority would not be able to make the 2 hour drive each direction, due to other family obligations, cost of fuel, etc. After a long search, Goodyear donated their field for a launch site in Carson- where the airship is normally moored. I studied for and received my HAM radio license, to allow me to be able to send an APRS radio, and formed a partnership with a local HAM radio club to support and help train for inflating the balloon.
Next on my list was to get my students to learn about meteorology. I started contacting universities, professors, colleagues, and anyone I could think of that would be interested in a skype session with my students for 10 minutes. The incredible happened- KTLA in Los Angeles had a meteorologist that was interested in coming out and talking to my students- and we ended up making it onto the afternoon news! My students learned about high and low pressure, how weather balloons work, the different tools that meteorologists use, and got even more inspired about the project.
The morning of the launch, everything was as perfect as could be. The winds were absolutely calm, not a cloud in the sky, warm weather, and excitement filled the air. The crowd, filled with about 100 students, parents, community members, and friends, lined the edge of the Goodyear blimp mooring pad as the balloon slowly inflated with helium. My ground crew of students quickly got to work, putting to use what they had been learning, preparing for, and practicing for months. At precisely 9:09 AM on Saturday, April 16, the balloon was launched from the field, along with the realization that dreams can really come true.
As the balloon soared to 97,000 feet above the Earth, some student families and I drove along the coast to try to recover it, as we all knew it was predicted to splash down in the Pacific Ocean. There is software online that if you input the predicted burst altitude, mass of payload, ascent and descent rate, date and time of the launch, and exact coordinates of the launch site, it can predict where the balloon would burst, and where it would touch down again. The prediction was accurate, and as we watched on radar, realized that we would not be able to recover it that day, as the winds were too strong on shore. We were not deterred by this recent change in plans, and began calling and contacting anyone who would possibly be willing to drive 20 miles off shore, in the hopes of capturing the balloon and its contents for later that day or even the next day. A small company called Xplore Offshore answered the phone, and was up for the challenge. Bright and early the next morning, they scoured the ocean, spending 4 hours out, armed only with coordinates that signaled where the payload was 12 hours before. They weren’t successful, and came back to shore- but determined to succeed.
The next day he went out again, this time with a second boat and updated coordinates. As they were out, a large wave pushed the payload out, triggering the GPS on board, and giving me brand new coordinates that were different than the ones we had been predicting. Unfortunately, they were too far offshore to be able to receive them! Phone calls and text messages went unanswered- and we were worried that once he came back in, he wouldn’t want to go out again- they have a business to run, and cannot continue scouring the ocean, especially when it is 20 miles off shore. I finally got a hold of him, begged, and he went out one more time, telling me that this was it- he couldn’t do it any more.
After everything, he was able to retrieve the floating box of Styrofoam, encased in orange, floating out in the middle of the ocean. I went screaming from my classroom down the hallway to my principal, where we received a picture on my phone from the captain of the payload, balloon, and parachute, bobbing calmly in the ocean. After another moment of glee (and permission from my principal), I got in my car and drove to La Jolla, where I met the captain, my payload, and truly saw my dreams come true.
Was it a lot of work? Without a doubt- one of the most stressful experiences I’ve ever done as an educator. Was it worth it? Again, without a doubt- I had students that like science but are not interested in “school” that were begging their parents to get them to school early on their team days. Students are already asking me if they can be on the launch team for next year. Hearing a 5-year-old accurately explain to a group of adults why a balloon will burst in space is just extraordinary. I definitely know that I have some engineers and researchers on my team- kids that are going to change the world as we know it. All it took was a dream.
Posted: Tuesday, March 14th, 2017
The pre-publication version of the new California Science Curriculum Framework is now available for download. This publication incorporates all the edits that were approved by the State Board of Education in November 2016 and was many months in the making. Our sincere thanks to the dozens of CSTA members were involved in its development. Our appreciation is also extended to the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education, the Instructional Quality Commission, and the Science Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee and their staff for their hard work and dedication to produce this document and for their commitment to the public input process. To the many writers and contributors to the Framework CSTA thanks you for your many hours of work to produce a world-class document.
For tips on how to approach this document see our article from December 2016: California Has Adopted a New Science Curriculum Framework – Now What …? If you would like to learn more about the Framework, consider participating in one of the Framework Launch events (a.k.a. Rollout #4) scheduled throughout 2017.
The final publication version (formatted for printing) will be available in July 2017. This document will not be available in printed format, only electronically.
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
The 2017 Award Season is now open! One of the benefits of being a CSTA member is your eligibility for awards as well as your eligibility to nominate someone for an award. CSTA offers several awards and members may nominate individuals and organizations for the Future Science Teacher Award, the prestigious Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, and the CSTA Distinguished Contributions Award (organizational award). May 9, 2017 is the deadline for nominations for these awards. CSTA believes that the importance of science education cannot be overstated. Given the essential presence of the sciences in understanding the past and planning for the future, science education remains, and will increasingly be one of the most important disciplines in education. CSTA is committed to recognizing and encouraging excellence in science teaching through the presentation of awards to science educators and organizations who have made outstanding contributions in science education in the state and who are poised to continue the momentum of providing high quality, relevant science education into the future. Learn More…
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
CSTA is now accepting applications from regular, preservice, and retired members to serve on our volunteer committees! CSTA’s all-volunteer board of directors invites you to consider maximizing your member experience by volunteering for CSTA. CSTA committee service offers you the opportunity to share your expertise, learn a new skill, or do something you love to do but never have the opportunity to do in your regular day. CSTA committee volunteers do some pretty amazing things: Learn More…
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
by Marian Murphy-Shaw
If you attended an NGSS Rollout phase 1-3 or CDE workshops at CSTA’s annual conference you may recall hearing from Chris Breazeale when he was working with the CDE. Chris has relocated professionally, with his passion for science education, and is now the Executive Director at the Explorit Science Center, a hands-on exploration museum featuring interactive STEM exhibits located at the beautiful Mace Ranch, 3141 5th St. in Davis, CA. Visitors can “think it, try it, and explorit” with a variety of displays that allow visitors to “do science.” To preview the museum, or schedule a classroom visit, see www.explorit.org. Learn More…
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
by Joseph Calmer
Probably like you, NGSS has been at the forefront of many department meetings, lunch conversations, and solitary lesson planning sessions. Despite reading the original NRC Framework, the Ca Draft Frameworks, and many CSTA writings, I am still left with the question: “what does it actually mean for my classroom?”
I had an eye-opening experience that helped me with that question. It came out of a conversation that I had with a student teacher. It turns out that I’ve found the secret to learning how to teach with NGSS: I need to engage in dialogue about teaching with novice teachers. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching science in some capacity for 12 years. During that time pedagogy and student learning become sort of a “hidden curriculum.” It is difficult to plan a lesson for the hidden curriculum; the best way is to just have two or more professionals talk and see what emerges. I was surprised it took me so long to realize this epiphany. Learn More…