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Science and Innovations

Near-Space Balloon Launch Inspires Flagstaff Sixth Graders in Science

Arizona ranks high in the nation for growth in science and technology careers—but it’s near the bottom when it comes to preparing students for those fields. That’s something a Flagstaff science teacher has set out to change. For the third year running, Kaci Heins of Northland Preparatory Academy has put her sixth graders in charge of launching a weather balloon to the edge of space. It’s a project meant not simply to teach, but to inspire.

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Kaci Heins helps students Ben Young and Max Waitz.

Heins shapes her entire science curriculum around the balloon launch. The goal is to reach one hundred thousand feet – almost into the vacuum of space. To make the giant helium balloon work in those conditions, the students have to learn engineering, math and meteorology. But there’s no quiet reading of textbooks in this classroom.

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Student Ben Young printed the yellow plastic holder that holds the balloon’s camera.

The students are split into teams. Celeste Martin and Sol Clifford are members of the payload team, in charge of getting the balloon’s scientific instruments ready for launch.

“I’m making the box that will have everything in it,” Martin says.

Clifford adds, “And then we’re going to attach that to the balloon and the parachute and we’re going to send it into the stratosphere, and hopefully it won’t hit the jet stream, otherwise it’s going over to maybe Florida.”

Other teams handle everything from GPS tracking to social media. Ben Young designs the plastic pieces built by the classroom’s 3D printer. He just fitted the balloon’s camera into its bright yellow holder. “[We’re] having trouble with it, but we finally got it in, so I’m just excited about that,” he says.

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Students gather in the airport hangar.

“Excited” is the key word here. That’s the whole point, says Heins. “I want my class to make an impact on kids and really steer them toward careers in science, technology, engineering and math,” she says. “But we’ve got to be able to provide the right experiences for the kids to get them hooked, especially in middle school. I think it’s critical to hook them  in middle school.”   

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Preparing to launch.

Jobs in science and technology are expected to grow. Yet only 16 percent of high school seniors nationwide are interested in those careers and have the math skills to pursue them.

In a survey of eighth-grade science teachers in Arizona, less than half reported having the resources they need. Heins applies for grants from NASA and the National Weather Association to fund the balloon project. It’s all to foster the dreams her students already have about their futures.  

Credit Melissa Sevigny
A student films the ascending balloon.

Bruce Sidlinger is an aerospace engineer who volunteers on the project. He says Launch Day recreates the inspiration of the Apollo Era, when kids were motivated to study science.

“It doesn’t really matter too much if the balloon completes its mission or if it’s recovered afterward, he says. “What matters is the learning leading up to the release of the balloon. Everything they learn in here, they’re desperate for that information.”  

On Launch Day, the students gather in Sidlinger’s hangar at the Flagstaff Airport. They crowd around the balloon, attaching their scientific instruments. The hangar doors open and Kaci Heins carries the balloon outside. Sixth grader Rylee Kellar holds its tether while the crowd starts to count down. Cheers erupt as the balloon is released.

Credit Tom Shehan
Volunteers recover the popped balloon.

Soon the balloon is a small white speck in the sky. But for Kaci Heins, the big moment is still to come: watching her students watch the video feed from the camera attached to the balloon.

She says, “You see this awe and wonder in their face and their eyes, and their mouths are hanging open, because they see the blackness of space and they see our planet there, and it’s just really cool, because they’re never going to forget that.”

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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