November 8, 2016

Their concentration was so fierce, they might well have been launching a spaceship.

As Carroll High School junior Nick Streit and several of his STEM training and research classmates prepared to fill a weather balloon with helium Friday, the rest of the class’s members watched, holding their breath.

“Nick, if you need help, I got you,” sophomore Chuol Chuol said as the balloon began to fill.

“It’s so heavy,” junior Tanner Finken joked.

“Really?” one classmate asked, surprised.

“No — it’s helium,” another scolded. “Helium is lighter than air, Tanner. It’s not heavy.”

The class, which in the past has completed robotics, engineering and drone projects, was taking on a new task Friday — to set up, launch, follow and retrieve a weather balloon.

A satellite tracker would allow the students to track the balloon, while a GoPro camera would record its journey once it rose past where the eye can see.

“We couldn’t survive in those conditions,” science teacher Kent Muyskens said before the balloon launched. “Hopefully this will.”

It did — breaking as it was supposed to and landing about 5 miles east of Yale, a bit more than two hours after it launched, Muyskens said.

There were a few glitches — the GoPro recorded for only 36 minutes, rather than the full two hours, and a mixup with a memory card kept data from being recorded. But they’ll learn from this launch and try again in the spring, Muyskens said.

The first snafu arose while the balloon was just launching — the satellite tracker didn’t register for a time.

“We were a little nervous for about 45 minutes,” Muyskens said with a laugh.

Whatever was blocking the signal eventually cleared up, though, and Muyskens and several students were able to retrieve the balloon when it landed. They used wind patterns to predict where it would land as closely as possible, although the tracker allowed them to find it even if the prediction was off.

When the class tries the project again, students will analyze data from the balloon’s flight — latitude, longitude, altitude, temperature, pressure and velocity, Muyskens said.

The video they did get showed the students looking up as the balloon launches, the high school and then large areas of Carroll County.

Fifth-grade students stopped by to watch the setup and launch, a nice exposure of the high school’s STEM offerings, Muyskens said.

The project will allow students to analyze data in the future, but it also gave them the opportunity to study the weather and wind patterns, to file a report that would allow them to launch the balloon and to figure out for themselves how to fill and launch the balloon, Muyskens said.

“The kids were in charge,” he said.

As helium slowly filled the balloon Friday, which first lay flat in students’ arms and then rose of its own volition as they held onto its base, some of them became concerned.

“It’s gonna pop!”

It didn’t.

Senior Robb McKenzie discussed the project’s significance with several classmates.

“Looks like everyone’s coming out for this.”

“Some are still in class — they’re missing out.”

“Yeah, this event, it’s historical.”

The students’ hot air and jokes were forgotten, though, when the balloon finally launched and fifth-graders and seniors alike shaded their eyes, mouths agape as the balloon soared out of sight.

Until next spring.