UNI students dedicated to flying high

On Saturday, May 18, following almost a year of hard work and planning, members of the Iowa Near-Space Project Integrating Research and Education (INSPIRE) team at the University of Northern Iowa was finally able to launch a high-altitude balloon more than 85,000 feet into the sky.

High altitude ballooning
Loren Thalacker demonstrated her skill at soldering a timing circuit in preparation for constructing her capsule.

In 2012, three UNI students, Kara Poppe, Brian Swedberg and Loren Thalacker, were awarded fellowships with the NASA Iowa Space Grant Consortium (ISGC) to complete the project along with two faculty advisers, John Ophus and Alex Oberle. Following the launch, each student will continue to work on a different assignment in his or her area of expertise.

Along with these three ISGC scholars, the INSPIRE team includes a group of nine teacher education students who learned the basics of high-altitude ballooning and then built their own flight-ready capsules. By 2015, there will be two more groups of 10 pre-service teachers to go through the same program.

Poppe, a sophomore in geography, researched informal education models and developed one that fits high-altitude ballooning. "My favorite part of this project is learning how to bring real-life science in and out of the classroom," said Poppe. "This project is important because high-impact and interactive STEM opportunities, such as a high-altitude balloon launch, allow for the applications of concepts learned in the classroom."

Swedberg, a senior in geographic information systems, developed a system that makes it easier for teachers to manage and analyze post-flight data. "The unique approach to learning in the project allows members to explore topics that they may not have had the chance to do otherwise," said Swedberg.

Thalacker, a senior in biology education, focused on the growth of science and social science education majors. She looked at how the participants' views of their abilities to teach science changed as a result of involvement with the program. "It was a great experience to collaborate and learn new concepts, like engineering, that I didn't know before," noted Thalacker. "With our nation falling behind in test scores in these (STEM) areas, this engagement is more important than ever."

High altitude ballooning
A view from more than 60,000 feet during the May 18 flight.

"Geography is a discipline that spans social science, science and technology, and the INSPIRE program provides a unique means for integrating these three areas," said Oberle, an associate professor of geography at UNI. "Seeing the Earth from near-space via high-altitude ballooning is a natural connection, especially when you think about the ways we typically visualize the world today, such as navigating the globe on Google Earth."

Although the balloon has launched, the team's work is far from over. They will now begin the process of retrieving, culturing and classifying microorganisms from high altitudes, analyzing pressure and temperature differences within the stratosphere, and using high altitude photographs to analyze how agricultural practices, urbanization and other human activities modify physical environments and vice versa.

"We are excited to train these future teachers in high-altitude ballooning so they may be able to pass on the excitement of near-space exploration to their own students and encourage the next generation of scientists," said Ophus, an associate professor of biology at UNI who has been working with high-altitude ballooning for more than 10 years in Idaho, Texas and Iowa.

The INSPIRE team strives to "inspire." They inspire educators to reach beyond the classroom in search for new, innovative ways to educate, and inspire students to follow their dreams through creativity and hands-on learning.