Douglas Henry (BA ’14) is not a science major.
In fact, he didn’t especially like science, until he took Bernhard Beck-Winchatz’s class, Science at the Edge of Space, during which students send a high-altitude balloon into the Earth’s atmosphere to test the effects of pressure, temperature and radiation on everything from sounds waves to DNA.
“We use ballooning to engage DePaul students in real research,” says Beck-Winchatz, an associate professor in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) studies department. “Everyone should understand how science works and why it matters, so we’ve created an exciting and engaging opportunity for undergraduates, including non-science students, to learn how to do scientific research themselves.”
“Was it cool to send a balloon into outer space? Sure, but even better was gaining a fresh perspective on science itself,” says Henry, who is majoring in communication.
“I’d always thought of science as difficult and separate from my interests. Not true. For example, one of the things we learned — through our own experimentation, and not just in a book — is that what humans do on the ground can have serious consequences for what happens 20 miles above us in near-space, which in turn can affect life on Earth. For me, that fact has all kinds of connections to philosophy. So, for me the real ‘lesson learned’ was that it’s best not to compartmentalize different fields: Science can touch everything else.”
DePaul is the only university in Illinois to use ballooning to teach fundamentals of atmospheric science and astronomy.
For each launch, the students ask scientific questions, design investigations, build payloads and put them in polystyrene containers that comply with FAA regulations for weight and breaking strength. The balloon climbs 20 miles, where atmospheric pressure and temperature are low and cosmic radiation is intense. GPS trackers transmit the balloon’s latitude, longitude and altitude throughout its flight and enable the students to find the parachuted containers when they land, sometimes as much as 80 miles away.
“We try to show students that science is an exciting and creative process,” says Beck-Winchatz. “We send the boxes up; they come back with data. Then, the student-scientists have to connect the numbers to find answers to their original questions.”
Through DePaul’s STEM center, Beck-Winchatz has also brought ballooning to Chicago Public Schools, a community outreach effort originally funded by a NASA education program in 2010 and 2011 and since continued independently by DePaul.
Kris Beck, the director of the STEM lab at Manierre Elementary School, heard about ballooning while completing an MS in science education at DePaul:
"When Bernhard said he was looking for an opportunity to launch a balloon with middle school students, I jumped at the chance.
"He helped our students decide on experiments appropriate for their age and then worked with us through the whole process. The kids generated their own questions about the atmosphere, designed their experiments and worked collaboratively in using the equipment and building the payload (in the photo above, they're nearly ready to launch). Then, they had to learn how to use GPS and how to figure out where the balloon would land by calculating the effect of wind speed.
"The launch itself was a thrill (below, a photo taken by a camera on the students' balloon), and the kids were so excited when we found the balloon after it landed. Back in the lab, they had to make sense of the data collected by multiple instruments. Front-to-end, the project was a tremendous amount of real-world scientific work.
"I think this was one of the best ‘learning’ activities they’ve ever done. In typical classroom science, we know outcomes in advance; the experiments have been done a million times, and there’s a right answer. But in this case, that wasn’t true, and as a result the students felt they were doing something original and important. Every kid should learn science this way.”
Beck-Winchatz agrees: “Science is the best method that we have to figure out how things work in the natural world: It’s a systematic way to ask questions, collect meaningful data, and come up with explanations. These principles can be applied to any type of inquiry. Ballooning makes that lesson fun.”