St. John the Evangelist Regional Catholic School is preparing for takeoff.
Seventh- and eighth-grade students at the Uniontown school spent a day last week constructing and readying a weather balloon for launch into the stratosphere.
On launch day, students will fill the large balloon will helium gas and release it into space. Attached to the balloon’s parachute will be a small box call the “payload,” which hangs from the bottom of the balloon and is designed to hold data collection devices.
The students will use GPS tracking to follow the balloon after its launch and calculate its route, gather data, observe atmospheric conditions and collect video images.
Inside the payload is a small flight computer, which will gather location and altitude data and collect data on atmospheric pressure and temperature.
The payload will also contain a spot tracker that will broadcast data to allow the students to track the balloon’s flight in real time, and two GoPro cameras will record video of the balloon’s journey.
Renee Petrovich, science and math teacher at St. John, said she wanted to replicate in her classroom an activity in which she participated at class at the Intermediate Unit 1.
“A project like this takes learning beyond the textbook,” said Petrovich. “It incorporates every aspect of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).”
The class is receiving assistance on the project from a high-altitude ballooning veteran.
Mike Aesoph of Uniontown conducts one to two balloon launches each year as part of a STEM workshop he organizes for area Boy Scout troops.
Together Petrovich and Aesoph wrote a grant proposal and put together a plan to launch three high-altitude balloons and one “pico” balloon, a smaller, lighter balloon also designed for high-altitude travel that is expected to entirely circle the globe.
The balloon project, dubbed “Up, Up and Away,” was made possible with the support of an Innovation Grant of nearly $4,000 from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Greensburg to provide STEM education opportunities to students.
“Every grade level learns about weather and the atmosphere, and having a hands-on activity to send something up in the atmosphere reinforces that,” said Petrovich.
Petrovich asked Aesoph to bring his knowledge and experience to the classroom, where he has walked students through completing tasks towards preparing the launch.
The school held a STEM day Jan. 30 in preparation for the first launch, which is scheduled for May 8 in the parking lot of St. John. Aesoph and class recently performed a parachute weight test by dropping a weight the same as the balloon from the ladder of a fire truck in the parish parking lot. The students calculated the drop rate of the parachute.
“I stress to them that STEM can be fun,” Aesoph said.
“Leading up to launch day and especially on launch day, there is a lot of student involvement. They’ll handle the balloon, get it ready for launch. There’s always lots of chaos,” he said.
Prior to the STEM day activities, two St. John students, Dante Nutt and Ayden Kiefer, worked with Aesoph to design the payload box using 3-D CAD, or computer-aided design, software. Together the class assembled the craft and parachute.
Other students worked on calculations to predict the height at which the balloon will burst and the trajectory of the craft during its journey, which could extend hundreds of miles.
Weather balloons rise quickly and can reach altitudes of up to 100,000 feet. As atmospheric pressure falls, it causes the helium to expand and the balloon to pop.
“This is the kind of thing that shows (students) you can never be afraid to try something new. You have to keep learning,” said Petrovich.
“With STEM, the sky’s the limit.”