The students in the High Altitude Balloon Club meet up at John Page  Middle School in Madison Heights April 17. At press time, they were preparing to launch  a flying platform that would gather data and conduct science experiments.

The students in the High Altitude Balloon Club meet up at John Page Middle School in Madison Heights April 17. At press time, they were preparing to launch a flying platform that would gather data and conduct science experiments.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Page students learn STEM concepts in High Altitude Balloon Club

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published April 23, 2019

 Club members design the experiments and build the platform, learning STEM concepts along the way.

Club members design the experiments and build the platform, learning STEM concepts along the way.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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MADISON HEIGHTS — Many after-school clubs challenge their students to “reach higher,” but the High Altitude Balloon Club at John Page Middle School gives literal meaning to the phrase.

The sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in the group design and launch platforms that use balloons to soar high into the atmosphere. The students learn science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, concepts from the design phase on through the balloon’s launch and retrieval, as well as the science experiments conducted along the way.

The club started in 2015 at the middle school, 29615 Tawas St. in Madison Heights. As part of the project, students gather information to file with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and learn how to read aeronautical maps  , how to identify the longitude and latitude of a location, and how to calculate the balloon’s VHF omnidirectional range, or VOR, which lets pilots in the area know where the balloon is being launched and how long it will be in the air.

The club also predicts where the balloon platform will land. The platform carries a flight computer that collects scientific data points every six seconds, including flight time, GPS coordinates, altitude, temperature and air pressure. The platform also carries three cameras, a satellite tracker and various experiments. This year, the club has also been looking at experiments involving organic materials including aloe leaves, seeds and a damp sponge to simulate what happens to lungs at different altitudes. 

The balloon itself is a 1,500-gram latex weather balloon that is filled with helium and launched by hand. The students have no control over where it goes; it follows the wind, and the team will make a last-minute flight prediction using software that includes the most up-to-date weather information. 

At press time, the current goal was to launch the club’s new platform on April 20 in Ovid, northeast of Lansing, although plans were subject to change based on the weather, with ideal launch conditions being mostly sunny with wind speeds under 10 mph. 

The group also participates in the Global Space Balloon Challenge, and in 2016 the club took second place for best photo, in a highly competitive field that included 454 teams from 54 countries, including private organizations and clubs, as well as schools and universities. 

Robert Gower, the group’s instructor, said the students begin the process each year by asking themselves what they want to learn, what the platform needs to carry, and how they can accomplish their goals safely. 

“Once we have answers to these questions, we need to examine our design criteria and constraints: How large can it be? Do we have a weight limit? Does it need radar reflection or radio communication? How big does the parachute need to be in order for our platform to safely land? What are the different landing conditions — isolated, trees, water, etc.?” Gower said. “The team then prototypes and decides on the most viable option. Then they begin building the final platform.” 

The club begins in February each year and runs for about eight to 10 weeks, depending on weather conditions that may delay the launch. The club usually has between 10 and 15 students.

The club is aligned with the middle school’s focus on not only STEM concepts, but also art — collectively called STEAM. 

“They learn science from the experiments and flight data; they use technology to develop their NOTAM, as well as various technological programs to make flight predictions; they use the engineering design cycle — investigate, design, build and evaluate — to create the platform; they use the creative process to dream up the ideas necessary to accomplish the mission,” Gower explained. “The students use math throughout the process, from day one to recovery of the platform. The entire process also teaches critical thinking, teamwork and organization.

“What I really like about this club is that it helps students see the big picture of how their academics can work together in a future career,” he added. “I hope they walk away inspired to follow through on their dreams. I like to think of the club as a big life moment, one that they will remember when they’re in their 60s and share with other generations.”

Ryan McCann, a member of the Lamphere Board of Education and parent of club member Nolan McCann, said that the club provides students with “an experience they will never forget” while equipping them with helpful tools for the future. 

“I have worked with business and technology teams for much of my career; I spent a lot of time coaching them to use the scientific method to test new ideas or, to put it another way, validate or invalidate their hypotheses quickly,” McCann said. “This approach involves all of the disciplines this club embodies … and in my opinion, provides students with the mindset and tools they need to be successful in life.”

For more information, call John Page Middle School at (248) 589-3428.

Call Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at (586) 279-1104.   

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