By Dave Quinn, Director of Technology Integration, Mendon-Upton Regional School District
“I think this is just so much better than textbook stuff.” --
I collaborated with Mrs. Rebecca Ide and her engineering and AP Physics students to collaboratively plan, design, launch and track a weather balloon. The weather balloon carried a small payload, or styrofoam case that contained a GoPro camera to record the trip and four student-designed pingpong ball-sized experiments.
My Experience as a Student
When I reflect back on my school experience, the most vivid memories come from times when I was engaged in an active, relevant learning experiences. They were often, but not exclusively, social endeavors that lead to products I wanted to share with others. They reconceptualized what school was about and left me longing for the next opportunity. As an educator and Director of Technology Integration, I seek and work with colleagues to implement these opportunities for my students. This is one story of success.
The Inspiration for Our Inspired Learning Project
Like most great ideas, it’s hard to recall the origin for the idea to launch a weather balloon. It could have been after listening to Brian Crosby’s presentation at EduCon 2017 or stumbling upon the Global Space Balloon Challenge or perhaps something entirely different. Regardless of how it came, it was one of those unshakeable ideas, the one you can’t get out of your head. With the launch of our Nipmuc Makerspace on the horizon, it looked like the perfect opportunity to create a relevant learning experience. My colleagues on the Nipmuc Makerspace Committee agreed and supported the funding for the project.
Once I had approval, I shared the idea for the endeavor with physics and engineering teacher Rebecca Ide. We brainstormed options for the project and ways to expand the reach beyond just one class. We decided to have the engineering students collaboratively plan, design, and implement the balloon launch. We gave the students a launch date, a project overview with links to important resources on the Global Space Balloon Challenge site and a Trello board for project management. The rest was up to them with support predominantly from Mrs. Ide and myself when they had questions.
We also decided to bring the AP Physics students into the project by creating a competitive “grant” challenge to propose a PongSat experiment to be included on the payload, or camera & tracking container. Students had to research previous PongSat experiments, design their own and argue for the merit of their experiment. In addition to presenting before a panel, they recorded a 90-second “commercial” videos to pitch their project for a “People’s Choice.” The winner of the "People's Choice" would be granted a an automatic spot on the payload.
The Impact of Inspiration
We invited NBC / New England Cable News’ Michael Page to join us for the launch. We wanted to make our process public and provide a little incentive for our students as well. The nervous excitement was palpable on launch day. We had 100% attendance and 100% enthusiasm from students as several sprinted down to the field. The students worked collaboratively on the set up with each knowing their roles. If students had their phones out, it was to document the process or to check to make sure the GPS and GoPro were working. Days later a student would tell our principal that this was the best thing he ever did in high school.
The most powerful piece of the planning process, for me, was the evolution of the idea through co-planning with my colleagues and students. It was the students who opted to design 90 “commercials” with graphics, text, and music for their pitches rather than a simple recording of their idea. Additionally, the idea to have a panel of science and art teachers review of the proposals also emerged out of the discussions with Ms. Ide and others. The collaborative imagination between colleagues is the key to remixing existing projects to make them your own and unique for your students.
No Inspiration without Perspiration
Complications arose, ensued, were overcome
As inspiring as the project was for both teachers and students, the process was not without its fair share of bumps. The students fell into a bit of a lull heading into the launch day. The day before the flight, several items on the Trello board were behind pace and there was a distinct lack of urgency that one would expect to see given the circumstances. We called a team meeting to remind the team that there would be an audience, including New England Cable News as well as their peers, viewing their process. The conversation sparked the realization that there was a lot more skin in the game for this project;, the focus returned and remained throughout the process. I remember the focus and care students had while setting up the balloon. One student's hands were shaking while tying the knot connecting the parachute to the payload. It was like playing through the nerves of a big athletic event and our students came through
Secondly, we almost ran out of air! The inflation tube was loose around the gas container leading to a significant leak that only filled the balloon halfway. Our students were left holding the balloon together for an hour while we found more helium. It was a bit embarrassing and horrifying given the cameras were rolling and the audience was growing, but we were able to locate a vendor, find additional gas, and launch the balloon without a hitch.
A Few Words of Advice
Hindsight being 20/20, the next time we coordinate this project, we will....
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