Approximately 650 students tilted their heads back and pointed toward the sky as a high-altitude computer attached to a balloon drifted into the overcast skies over the Belle Valley School running track.
The 10-foot balloon floated 22.5 miles above the earth where it expanded to the size of a small house before popping and falling toward earth again. Dozens of eager students drove more than two hours to collect the popped balloon and the data, which landed 140 miles away in Mount Carmel, Illinois.
The Nov. 30 balloon launch represented a years’ worth of collaboration in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education between three eighth-grade classes from Scott Air Force Base’s local community: Emge Junior High School, Smithton Middle School and Belle Valley School.
R. Dane Gale, Belle Valley School superintendent, said hands-on STEM activities like this is a valuable tool to sparking interest of young students, but they may not be possible without the help of the Air Force’s STEM-grant program.
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“The partnership between the Air Force and school districts help provide a platform for this deeper, more meaningful learning because it provides resources that allow access to hands-on learning,” said Gale. “Without the Air Force resources, such as what were provided for the balloon launch, a deeper, more experiential learning modality is limited due to cost.”
Cindy Doyle, Scott Air Force Base school liaison officer, worked with the local schools to develop the balloon-launch proposal for the Air Force STEM grant, and she said the payoff is clear.
“Today's youth are inquisitive,” said Doyle. “They don't want to just be told something; they want to know why. This is great for project-based learning and having the students learn through actual hands-on activities such as this one. The Air Force future is bright if we can capture and sustain the motivation and interest of these students as they discover, invent and serve because of our investment now.”
Dr. Donna Senft, Air Mobility Command chief scientist, worked alongside Doyle to grant Scott Air Force Base the funding for the STEM project, and Senft said she knows how valuable these opportunities are because of her own experiences in grade school when she began exploring her STEM path.
“Growing up near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I attended programs sponsored by the Westinghouse Research and Development Center on Saturday mornings, which I loved,” said Senft. “Watching the kids at the balloon launch, I could see the same excitement in them being involved in such a complex, hands-on experiment.”
Although the students made a successful launch, the work is hardly over. Now they will analyze data ranging from altitude and coordinates traveled to temperature and pressure.
For Aiden Blair, an eighth-grader with Emge Junior High School, a STEM future will extend further than just the rest of the school year.
“I didn’t think launching a balloon would be that fun,” said Blair. “I didn’t get to do it last year, so I was excited. I’ve always gone down the science path. I’m interested in physics and chemistry, and I just want to be able to help make people’s lives easier in the future.”
Senft said as early as middle school, students need to enroll in advanced-math and advanced-science classes in order to be competitive in STEM fields. Middle school programs, such as the balloon launch, communicate the fun and excitement of STEM careers and provide motivation to pursue a more challenging career path.
“It is our hope that as a result of our collaborative efforts, the students we impact will someday consider a career in a STEM related fields in either the private sector or the armed services,” said Gale. “If we can innovate, then we will remain the most powerful and influential nation in the world.”