Physics Professor Lends Support for 7th Grade Science Project

students and professor in front of science fair poster
St. Constance School seventh graders Kevin Rzepka, left, and John Gliwa, pose in front of their award-winning science poster with DePaul physics professor Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, at a regional science fair in March at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. (Photo courtesy of Ada Gliwa)
As with most award-winning science fair projects, this one began with curiosity.

Two junior scientists — Kevin Rzepka and John Gliwa, seventh graders at St. Constance School on Chicago’s northwest side — wondered about the effect of high altitude on marigold and lettuce seeds.

The students planned their experiment, raised funds to purchase equipment and received some technical guidance from high altitude balloon expert, Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, a DePaul physics professor.

high altitude balloon launch
Seventh graders from St. Constance School, with the help of their families and DePaul physics professor Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, launch a high altitude balloon for a science fair project on Thanksgiving Day from Coal City, Illinois. (Photo courtesy of Donna M. Sarniak-Rzepka)
“Their project was to investigate the effect of the harsh environment at high altitude on marigold and lettuce seeds,” Beck-Winchatz reports. “When they called me a few days before Thanksgiving to ask for help with their project, I was very impressed by their enthusiasm and commitment. I really enjoyed helping Kevin and John realize their ambitious plans.” 

The successful launch took place on Thanksgiving Day from Coal City, Illinois. 

“Everything worked perfectly, though we did almost land in the Kankakee River,” Beck-Winchatz says.

Kevin and John planted the seeds they flew, analyzed their data and presented their findings at a regional science fair in March at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, where their project was one of more than 250 poster projects presented.

Not only did Kevin and John receive a gold award and medallions, they moved on as semifinalists to compete at the Illinois Junior Academy of Science State Fair held May 4 at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

Their project, “Up, Up, and Away! A Grand Tour of the Stratosphere,” earned a gold award in the aerospace science category, junior division​ at the state science fair, and Kevin and John also were recognized for their “outstanding aviation project.”

high altitude balloon recovery
DePaul physics professor Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, left, joins seventh graders Kevin Rzepka and John Gliwa as they recover the payload from a high altitude balloon experiment. (Photo courtesy of Donna M. Sarniak-Rzepka)
“They both worked very hard on the project since late September, gathering supplies, researching background information, and setting up a Go Fund Me page to help earn money to purchase their balloon kit,” says Nicole Dal Santo, their science teacher at St. Constance.

“Kevin and John stayed several times after school to get assistance building their weather balloon structure, setting up the camera, and assembling the flight tracker," she says. "I am so proud of both of them, they had an idea that they both were so enthusiastic about, and performed above and beyond."

“The experiment was so cool and I learned so much about high altitude weather balloons and what they do for science,” Kevin says. “It was a really fun and an awesome challenge. I would love to do it again and again with a bigger balloon and to fly even higher. Next time I want to make it to the stratosphere.”

The junior scientists plan to launch another balloon in the future.

“The idea is to make it go higher in altitude and fly longer. We hope to gather even more data to share. Instead of plants we want to send up food items to test taste and quality after being in higher altitude,” John says. “This was an amazing experiment with my hands on science. This is the best way of learning.”

For Beck-Winchatz, the project represents more than participation in a science fair.

“It was so much fun to see these kids discover what it is like to do open-ended science research outside of the classroom, and realize that they enjoy it and are good at it,” says Beck-Winchatz. “It was also a great opportunity for me to help strengthen DePaul’s ties to the community and to the Catholic schools in Chicago, and to encourage curiosity and scientific inquiry in the next generation."

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