Up up & away

Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one … a weather balloon was released Wednesday, but it only skimmed across the ground and landed a few feet away.

So Curt Schleibaum, a Project Lead the Way teacher at Seymour Middle School, and his eighth-grade students added helium to the balloon and gave it another try.

Students lined the track and counted down from 10 again. This time, the balloon soared into the sky and quickly went out of sight.

The frame attached to the balloon held a GPS device, so Schleibaum and his students went back into their classroom and pulled up the satellite tracking program on a computer.

An hour and 50 minutes later, the balloon reached close to 111,000 feet before popping. It then took about 45 minutes for the parachute to reach the ground, landing 55.1 miles away in the Franklin County town of Laurel.

The frame also held a GoPro camera, so Schleibaum and the students could see images of Earth.

The project was out of this world and thrilled the school’s special guest, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz.

“It was pretty awesome. I have fun days at school every time I go to school, honestly I do. But this was pretty cool,” she said. “It was kind of nice, though, that it didn’t work the first time, so kids can see what science is all about, so you know you’ve got to adjust, and it took off.”

After watching the launch, Ritz and her staff went into the classroom to learn more about the students’ project, which also involved putting items in pingpong balls and placing them in a mesh bag to send with the balloon.

“How natural is she in the classroom?” Schleibaum said of Ritz. “She came in, and she’s talking to the students about their assignments. You can tell that she has a lot of grace. The students just opened right up to her. So how awesome is it that she can walk into the classroom and be a part of it? She was truly a part of it, walking around and discussing with the students, which is awesome.”

Part of migrant education

The launch was a part of the state’s migrant education program. That’s for Indiana students from birth to 21 years old who have moved across school district lines in search of agricultural work or with a family member who is involved in that line of work, said Rachel Davidson, English learning and migrant education coordinator with the Indiana Department of Education.

Wednesday’s launch served as a kickoff for the migrant education summer camp for kids in Seymour, Columbus and Madison, where they will take English and other core classes with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) on top of it. Schleibaum said around 30 kids are registered for the Seymour site.

“We are really giving full support for the summer learning,” Ritz said. “Programs have been around with federal funding, but under my administration it’s really the first time that we’ve had great programming, actually seeing great results in literacy for the kids over the summer. We have a lot of initiatives going on to be sure that we have no stopping of learning during the summer.”

Schleibaum learned about the program this winter and applied to join a team to build STEM curriculum. In April, students in Carmel launched a balloon. It went about 60 miles, but they didn’t get good results.

The rigging got in the way of the signal of the flight computer (which records altitude and drift), so there were intermittent data points. The SD card in the GoPro camera was affected by the altitude and became corrupted, so they didn’t get any footage. And they lost the experimental pieces that were in sealed bags.

So Wednesday, when Schleibaum participated in his second launch, he used a mesh bag for the pingpong balls and a high-end SD card. The frame also included a buzzer that sounded once it hit the ground, which made it easier for Schleibaum to find. And there was a miniature model of the Cummins Inc. Seymour Engine Plant’s Hedgehog engine, since Cummins sponsors the school’s summer program and assists Schleibaum’s class throughout the year.

‘250 birthday balloons’

Schleibaum had Project Lead the Way and migrant education students help with the launch. One student ensured the parachute was rigged right. A couple of them checked the electronics a few times to make sure they were running. Then eight students held the balloon to the ground while it was aired up.

“It has quite a bit of lift,” he said. “You get 250 birthday balloons out of the tank that we just we put into one balloon, so you can tell we have a lot of helium in there.”

Those holding the balloon down were required to wear rubber gloves.

“The oils in your hand will actually permeate the latex or the material of the space balloon, and it could make a weak spot, and it will pop early, and you won’t get up as high,” Schleibaum said. “You wear the gloves to try to keep as much oils off of the balloon as possible to be able to get it up.”

After the first launch didn’t go as planned, Schleibaum added helium and used a digital scale to determine the lift.

“It’s always better to try to find that sweet spot of the amount of helium than overfilling it,” he said. “If you overfill it, it won’t go up as high. If you underfill it, it takes a lot longer to get there.”

Testing hypotheses

Once the balloon took off on the second attempt, Schleibaum aimed for it to exceed 100,000 feet. At that height, through GoPro footage, they were able to see the curvature of Earth and darkness of space.

“The helium inside the balloon is expanding as it gets higher and higher,” he said. “At a certain point, the balloon will be expanded as far as it elastically can and will pop, and then it will fall back down, and there’s about a meter-and-a-half parachute that’s underneath the balloon that will start using the parachute to glide it back down.”

After Schleibaum recovered the pingpong balls, he brought them into class Thursday for his students to examine.

Before the launch, they had cut a pingpong ball in half, made an experiment inside using items ranging from marshmallows to gummy bears, and wrote a hypothesis about what they thought would happen to their item. They also named and designed their ball.

“I really didn’t try to stunt their creativity, and you could see they were really taking it serious, that it had to be a science project instead of just ‘I want to send this trinket to space,’” Schleibaum said. “Everything that went up was a science experiment, and they had to prove a hypothesis.”

So why pingpong balls?

“It gives them a design challenge to be able to fit the project inside of a pingpong ball,” he said. “They are very easy to move around and attach to the weather balloon because they are light and you know exactly how much volume that the kid gets to send up.”

Eighth-grader James Hess said he put Sour Patch candy in his pingpong ball and named it Bear.

“It probably will get sucked all of the air and oxygen out of it, and maybe it might vanish,” he predicted Wednesday.

James said the project was interesting because the class could see how the climate changes from here to space.

Schleibaum also had Mandy Ward, a meteorologist from Seymour, look at the data from the project and do a short meteorology spot like she would do for television.

More launches planned

Schleibaum said he expected the assignment to steer kids into more research and reading of what happened to their pingpong ball. He also said it might interest them in careers such as aeronautics, air traffic control, flying or meteorology.

It also was good for those involved in the migrant education program.

“You have to do a lot of reading for launching a balloon, so you pick up some of those English skills,” he said. “We wrote a paper over the hypothesis, and you get to hide some of those other core classes into something that’s a little out there, a little more exciting, something you don’t see every day.”

Schleibaum said he had wanted to launch a balloon during the school year for several years, and he’s glad he finally got opportunities to do it.

“This gave me a great avenue to access more students that need this kind of stuff and get them back involved in education and get them to see what you can do with a little bit of research, a little bit of work and have a lot of fun doing it,” he said.

This summer, he will travel around the state helping with balloon launches.

“It has been a great honor to be able to do this,” he said. “It has been a lot of fun and very exciting to be a part of.”

On the Web

To learn about English learning and migrant education, visit doe.in.gov/elme.

Author photo
Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.