HRHS meteorological lesson comes alive with weather balloon launch
MORRISON – A group of Highlands Ranch High School students embraced an opportunity to lead a mission that went higher than most humans will ever venture.
The teens launched a weather balloon that climbed 19.4 miles in altitude, providing them with a stunning authentic learning opportunity and a chance to learn first-hand about the stratosphere.
“Most of what we do as humans is in the first nine miles of the atmosphere, the troposphere,” explained HRHS science teacher Bob MacArthur. “Here we are getting a piece of the stratosphere.”
The students' balloon reached a height of 102,470 feet, flying double the altitude of most commercial airliners.
“Very few people have been up at that elevation,” MacArthur said.
“Space is 63 miles. It’s the edge of space. We’ll get to about 20 miles today-- a third of the way to space,” he added.
While high school science is often done in the classroom, MacArthur makes an effort to create hands-on experiences like the balloon launch.
“I’m really big into getting students out in the field,” MacArthur said. “I think sometime we miss the mark in getting students involved in real science. [They need to] see how it’s done and get a real feel for the scientific method. It allows them to understand it and get it within their grasp.”
The result is an obvious increase in student engagement, as shown on a recent early weekend morning. A couple dozen students excitedly waited for the launch at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Some of the students aren’t even in this semester’s meteorology class.
“You see the kids get fired up about it, there are 20 of them out here on a Saturday,” MacArthur said. “We’re taking technology that is available to them right now and we’re putting it in the hands of the students and they’re collecting real metrological data. There are only a handful of schools in the United States that actually do this.”
“The main reason I took this course was that I’m going into college for meteorology,” explained HRHS senior Ashley Palinkas. “The fact that I get to do this before I get to go off to college is actually really amazing.”
The balloon’s payload includes a GPS unit so the team can track the balloon and a computer that gathers valuable data on altitude, speed and temperature.
“We can send our data in to the National Weather Service and it would be used as valuable data, which is really cool,” MacArthur said.
Following the mission, the students will take the data collected and work to decipher it.
“First, it’s overwhelming. It’s just a whole screen full of numbers,” MacArthur explained. “Latitude, longitude, temperature, date… and then we have to start breaking it down so the students know what they’re looking at.”
He says the exercise gives the teens plenty of practice at conversions, as they take the raw data and begin to find a way to use it in a report.
“They are creating the project,” MacArthur said.
“They can look at elevation and temperature or elevation and barometric pressure, for instance. How did barometric pressure change with temperature? At what elevation did we get into the stratosphere?” he gave as an example.
A GoPro camera attached to the weather balloon payload provides additional evidence. It captured spectacular video from launch to landing.
“The video is always fun to see, because they’ll see the curvature of earth and the blackness of space,” MacArthur said.
This is the third time MacArthur has launched a weather balloon with his science classes. The first landed east of Denver, near Bennett and Strasburg. The second drafted into a thunderstorm and after about 10 hours aloft, ended up near Gunnison.
While there isn’t a meteorological class next semester, MacArthur says other classes are considering incorporating it into their lessons.
“I was talking to our AP Biology teacher. She is considering [having the students] grow a culture of bacteria and then launch it to 100,000 feet. That is above the ozone layer, so there would be full ultra violent radiation on this bacteria,” MacArthur said.
In addition to the balloon launches, MacArthur has also taken students to Hawaii to study lava up close and to visit the astronomical observatories there. This fall, he is taking a group of students to Iceland so they can see the Northern lights and geothermal springs firsthand.
“They see [these places] in pictures, but to experience it in a whole other way, to actually be there; to feel it; to touch it. It’s something that gets them excited about science. For me that’s such a huge thing,” MacArthur said.