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Student project reaches new heights
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Fifth-graders and Frederick prepare to release a balloon. The handlers wore latex gloves so their sweat and skin oil wouldn’t weaken the material. - photo by NAT GURLEY

The school year may be coming to a close, but a group of Wauka Mountain Multiple Intelligences Academy students made sure it went out with a “pop.”

Students of all grades gathered Tuesday on the baseball field to witness the launch of a “space balloon,” a class project months in the making.

“We invited the whole school to come out and watch,” said Principal Jo Dinnan. “We’re all excited.”

The project was orchestrated by teacher Kyle Frederick and came together from a collaborative effort of his fourth- and fifth-grade SEARCH students, a gifted program at the school, with the goal of capturing an original image of the curvature of the Earth.

To acquire the photo, the space balloon had to be designed just right. A special large latex balloon full of helium was used to attain maximum height. Attached to the balloon was a securely sealed container consisting of a GPS transponder to track the balloon and send signals to Frederick’s computer, and a GoPro camera to capture the view. A parachute was attached between the balloon and the container.

Frederick’s fifth-grade students, with his direction, worked together to get the various materials ready while the crowd looked on eagerly.

“If everything goes well, that balloon will get up to about 100,000 feet ... about 20 miles up in the air,” Frederick said, addressing the group.

“As the balloon rises, the pressure in the atmosphere decreases, so the balloon gets bigger and bigger and eventually it’ll get too big, and what will happen?” Frederick asked the crowd.

“Pop, it’ll pop,” onlooking students answered.

“Right, it will pop,” Frederick said. “When it pops, it will start falling and that parachute will open, bring it back down to Earth safely and that GPS transponder will tell me exactly where it is so I can drive and go get it,” he added.

Frederick said he actually got the idea from a similar project he saw featured on a news channel several years ago.

“I started looking into it, and all the math and science involved is really right on (the students’) level,” he said. “So I thought, wouldn’t that be cool to make that a project for us to do, so that’s what we started the year doing.”

After presenting the challenge of obtaining the photo to the students, Frederick said, they brainstormed how it could be accomplished.

“Once they came to the conclusion that we were going to have to send something up there, it became ‘how are we going to get something up there?’ and they finally came up with the idea for the balloon,” he said. “So as the ideas came, we just continued to solve the problems that arose.”

“He challenged us to come up with a design — like, ‘how are we going to do this?’” said fifth-grader Alexis Maynor. “We researched a lot.”

A cross-curricular learning opportunity was also presented by taking on the project, Frederick said.

“(We’re covering) math, science, they’re working on creating websites, they’re writing,” he said. “We talked about the GPS system and how that works, we talked about the chemical makeup of helium ... you’ve got to make it fun,” he added.

The space balloon required some special materials to come to fruition and Frederick was able to attain many, including the GoPro camera and GPS transponder, through a grant from

Lucas Pitts, one of Frederick’s fifth-grade students, said he was excited to finally see the balloon launch.

“We’ve worked on it almost the whole (school) year,” he added.

To the countdown chants of “three, two, one,” the balloon was released into the air, where it kept rising until it was barely a speck in the sky.

The students rushed back to the classroom to watch Frederick check the balloon’s location on his laptop, the GPS transponder updating the status every 10 minutes.

Almost four hours later, the container made landfall in Union Point, about 20 miles south of Athens and almost 91 miles from the school.