High-Altitude Balloon class: Reach past the sky

Forestview Middle School students have taken the challenge to shoot for the stars literally, as they work on a project in their after-school High-Altitude Balloon class.

Forestview Middle School students have taken the challenge to shoot for the stars literally, as they work on a project in their after-school High-Altitude Balloon class.

Now entering their fourth week in the class, students are working on different payloads to attach to a high-altitude balloon they plan to launch Feb. 12, weather permitting.

One of the class's instructors, multimedia teacher Jim Reed, said this balloon could reach a height of 115,000-200,000 feet, which would break the class's current record of 113,080 feet. This will be the seventh balloon launch overall for the class.

The class's other instructor, seventh-grade engineering teacher Cory Olson, said the launch date is tentative because it depends on the weather, specifically the jet stream. Ideal launch conditions are calm, clear and sunny with high pressure, he said, but after the balloon hits 18,000 feet, the weather won't matter anymore.



KLICK! Photo Gallery: High-Altitude Balloon Class - 56 Photos by Kelly Humphrey


Olson said students are currently working on designing their payloads on paper and using computer aided design, or CAD. The five different groups are working on different payloads, which will each carry a different piece of equipment.

One payload's task is to drop a dozen green Army men figures with parachutes after 45 minutes, which should be around 90,000-100,000 feet, Reed said. The parachutes will have contact information on them, so whoever finds one will be able to call the school and tell the students where they found it.

Sixth-grader Logan Omberg signed up to design the payload to drop green Army men from the stratosphere because he thought it was cool. He's got a simple goal for when the balloon launches.

"I just want to see the Army men fall out," Omberg said.

It's tough right now, he said, because he doesn't have the Army men or the countdown clock. This means he can't measure them and take those measurements into account when he's designing his payload, but he's making it work.

He participated in the school's First Lego League team this fall and said he plans on taking an after-school 3-D printing class next trimester.


Seventh-grader Jesse Pickar is working on a payload containing a 360 degree fly camera which can take photos and video while it's in the atmosphere. He said he likes working in a group because everyone considers everyone else's ideas equally.

"I like that we're trusted with all the equipment," Pickar said.

He chose the 360 degree fly camera payload because it's a simpler payload to design, he said. He signed up for the class because he liked the idea of launching balloons into the atmosphere and getting a satellite view.

"My parents were kind of shocked," Pickar said. "They were excited because they thought I could get in the newspaper."

Pickar said it's going to be cool seeing the balloon ascend into the sky when it launches, because he'll feel like he accomplished something. He doesn't have a goal for the launch, he said, other than hoping the balloon doesn't pop before it reaches its maximum height.

The 1,500 gram balloon is the biggest the class has launched, Reed said, and has a diameter of 7-8 feet when inflated. At peak altitude, the balloon expands to a diameter of 40 feet, he said.

The total weight of the payloads the balloon will carry will easily be under 5 pounds, Reed said, and will be closer to 4 pounds.

One payload will be carrying a PocketFinder GPS tracker, which is crucial for the class to be able to find the balloon once it lands, Reed said. Once it hits the ground, it sends a GPS signal so students will be able to retrieve the balloon. The balloon will probably land within 40-50 miles of where it was launched, he said.


Olson said one of the retrievals involved driving to Wisconsin and cutting a tree down. Another required driving to a marsh near McGregor and wading through a swamp to find the balloon.

One payload will carry a GoPro camera and a Wink STEM robot, which will provide real-time feedback with a variety of data like barometric pressure and altitude, Reed said. The acronym STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

"All the information shows up on a website," Reed said. "So kids will be able to track it live on their mobile devices."

Another payload will carry two petri dishes containing insects from another science class at the school, Reed said. The other class wants to observe what happens to their specimens at a higher altitude.

It's rewarding to see students take a project and take charge and ownership of it, Olson said.

"We set them up and they run with it," Olson said. "They have confidence, they're not afraid to make mistakes."

Already, Olson said he's seen the students come up with solutions past classes haven't.

"This is day three of us just letting them work," Olson said. "And we haven't had to walk around and tell them to keep busy."

After-school STEM classes provide an outlet for kids who want it, Olson said.

"It's an outlet for something to do in the winter that's educational, rewarding and fun," Olson said.


SPENSER BICKETT may be reached at 218-855-5859 or . Follow on Twitter at .

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