Science gets ‘cool factor’

Issue: Volume 98, Number 9

Posted: 30 May 2019
Reference #: 1H9uey

Stunning pictures from Near Space have been retrieved from a balloon successfully launched by Years 10-13 students at Fiordland College.

The group of seven students has sent a balloon 32 kilometres above the planet’s surface as a STEM project and successfully brought it back, capturing photos and video of Earth and gathering data.

The project has proved to be a fantastic learning process for them in areas well beyond the science curriculum including developing communication and research skills, and working collaboratively.

The aim was to show their capability not only for sending an object into Near Space but to work together to organise a venture of which they had no experience, manage the science and engineering components, obtain support from community partners (such as NIWA and BOC Gas), and learn about budgeting and sourcing of materials.

The group achieved all of that, and recovered the balloon after it returned to Earth. Video footage of the voyage was put up on YouTube and was shown on a screen the next day at their school prizegiving.

The photos and video footage show all the fiords and lakes of Westland, which the school’s geography students will make great use of.

The project cost? A total of $2,000, most of which was covered by sponsorship.

The helium-filled balloon was small at lift-off but expanded to the size of a double garage as it rose into the sky.

It was no easy road for the Near Space Project, and there were many hiccups for the students along the way.

Skills pooled

The original idea was put to them as a challenge by the school’s head of physics Christoph Zink. The project ran predominantly during the school’s sports and recreation period.

“We are the ‘non-sporties’ in the class,” says student Bella Wilson, “so we decided to do something with a more academic focus.”

They ran it as a collaborative effort. “Everyone was gifted and skilled in different areas,” says student Riku Darroch. “Some have technology skills, others are good organisers.”

Two students programmed the black box and collected the data they needed about wind speed, temperature, and the pressure measurements, all of which had to be constantly evaluated. Another did the communications, writing updates in the school newsletter, presenting at assemblies, and communicating with the stakeholders.

One student edited the video (in double-quick time) and another did the gas calculations.

Video editor Jeb Nicholson says, “It taught me we all have something valuable to contribute to a team.”

“It was something so different,” says Bella. “There were lots of small tasks to do and, a lot of research, which we shared. We had to get funding and there was a lot of preparation, planning and emailing to make arrangements.”

“People were very excited to hear what the students were attempting, and impressed at the huge challenges to overcome,” says Christoph.

Support from industry

After the students made contact with potential partners, helium gas was donated to the project by BOC Gas. They approached NIWA to see if they could help out, and NIWA not only invited them to visit their research station in Lauder, Central Otago, but also provided a parachute and the balloon.

It didn’t all go smoothly. The students had to think their way through problems as they arose, doing test runs and coming up with solutions that were very down-to-earth, such as heat patches to keep the battery warm in freezing conditions, and fishing swivels to minimise twisting during the flight. 

Riku was responsible for the calculations that kept the balloon stable. “It was so different,” he says. “I never expected to do this kind of thing while at school, and then put a video up about it on YouTube.”

“When you do something that is just ‘out there’, you get support,” says Christoph. “This has truly shown the students their capabilities and it’s great for them to be recognised and get a pat on the back. The harder you try, the luckier you get.”

On launch day, the wind was perfect. The team used prediction software, so they knew it was going to be good, otherwise they would have delayed the launch.

What’s next? It’s early days yet but they are looking at doing something similar deep underwater and finding a way to send images back from the bottom of Lake Te Anau.

“We now realise there are so many opportunities out there,” says Bella. “You don’t need an enormous budget, just give it a go.”

Tips from the group

  • Be practical, not theoretical. Get organised and make it happen. There will be many small tasks needed to reach the goal.
  • Be patient and persistent.
  • Don’t give up – the students’ first launch almost failed as the payload did not detach at low altitude and was nearly lost.
  • Use teamwork – everyone has skills to contribute.

View video of the balloon project on YouTube(external link).

Contact the school:

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:53 am, 30 May 2019

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