High-altitude Balloon Class Emphasizes Hands-on Learning
On a fine day in April a sizeable crowd gathered to watch as a helium-filled balloon rose, carrying into the sky several students’ projects from Prof. Vicki Coverstone’s high-altitude balloon class.
The balloon would rise some 90,000 feet before popping from the pressure outside it, and being carried via parachute to somewhere in Indiana. A radio, also strung to the balloon, would reveal its location for recovery along with -or so the students would hope - good data, photos and video.
After a few years’ absence, the balloon course Aerospace Engineering at Illinois offers was brought back this spring as another opportunity for hands-on learning. Throughout the semester, students – many of them AE freshmen – have been tasked with defining and designing a project, constructing it, and writing a report on their results.
The students have worked in eight teams of about five members each to prepare independent projects as payloads for the balloon launch. “They all had to formulate a reason for why they should fly their payload; they all had to have their own objective,” Coverstone said. “Success would be determined by whether the data provides information that allows them to meet the objective or prove their hypothesis.”
Goals varied. Some teams sought to take measurements to gain data on atmospheric pressure, different frequencies of light, or solar energy. Others sought to gain impressive photographs, with the possibility of entering them in the Global Space Balloon Challenge. This worldwide effort promotes high-altitude balloon flight through a competition, with awards for highest altitude, best photograph, best science experiment, best design, and other criteria.
The class allowed the young engineers to learn management and collaboration skills. “They worked as a team to divide the work; no one person could do it by themselves,” Coverstone said. “They were pretty ambitious projects.”
The teams were responsible for determining the equipment they needed, including sensors, cameras and computers. Each team was supplied a $50 budget and cameras from previous AE glider and rocket courses. Expenses over the budget came from the teams’ own pockets, so they were creative in repurposing used equipment.
“It became a management project because of the budget aspect,” Coverstone said.
The prep work led to the class’s highlight: three launch dates in April. Held in carriers the teams designed from mainstay materials of Styrofoam, Gorilla Glue and duct tape, projects were tied in a row, one after another, and then strung to the balloon. Once the balloon was released, all eyes followed the skyward procession, with the line of projects swaying like the tail of a kite.
“This is team-based project learning and hands-on stuff,” Coverstone said. “It helps students develop the ability to formulate an experiment.”
See more photos on AE's Facebook Page.