Teaching on the Edge

Using High-Altitude Ballooning in the Classroom

Undergraduate Education

Everything you need to teach high-altitude ballooning at the colleigate level.

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What is Teaching on the Edge all about?

Teaching on the Edge is about using high altitude balloons (HAB) to provide inquiry-rich learning experiences to undergraduate teaching majors. The phrase “on the edge” alludes to the fact that high altitude balloons reach the upper limits of the earth’s atmosphere where temperatures and pressures are very close to those found in outer space. The balloons literally reach the edge of the atmosphere (also known as near space) before they burst and return their experimental payloads to the ground. We believe that if our goal is to train science teachers who are confident and capable of leading their students in scientific inquiry, they must have comparable experiences of their own. This website puts that opportunity into science methods classes rather than traditional science labs so that pre-service teachers understand the importance of modeling for their students not only the skills of scientific inquiry, but also the attitudes toward science that inquiry demands.

One major criticism of teacher preparation programs is that they tend to emphasize either content or pedagogy independently and at the expense of a more integrated and conceptualized whole (Mason, 1999). The result of such programs is too often teachers emphasizing for detail and depth, rather than articulation and conceptual understanding. Introducing a HAB curriculum in a science methods class may help to mitigate such results and to increase pre-service science teachers’ development of pedagogical content knowledge.

Frequently Asked Questions

How was this website made possible?

The Teaching on the Edge website is the culmination of a 3-year National Science Foundation grant awarded to two universities in East Central Indiana (NSF Grant No. 1047557). Taylor University in Upland and Ball State University in Muncie worked together to bring high altitude ballooning to undergraduate elementary and secondary science teaching majors via their science methods classes. Both universities were already using HAB in their undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, so both sites already had the balloon launch and retrieval capabilities necessary to make this curriculum come alive. Once teaching majors had been through a cycle of experimental design, data collection, and data analysis activities, those students prepared lessons to teach the same process to 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students in local schools. The instructional materials on this website were produced by the teaching majors and the data, videos, and simulations presented here are the result of near space experiments that both teaching majors and middle school students designed and analyzed following real balloon flights. This program gave our pre-service teachers opportunities to engage in, as learners, the instruction they were expected to conduct.

What can I expect to find on the website?

The Teaching on the Edge website will allow your science teaching majors to learn about the history of high altitude ballooning and about the components and features of the earth’s atmosphere. It will also provide a variety of materials and resources, (including an interactive iBook) for them to use as they design an instructional unit that covers a variety of life, earth/space, and physical science concepts built around either an actual or a virtual high altitude balloon launch. More importantly, the sample materials found here will provide ample opportunities for your students to participate in science as inquiry and to extend their abilities of technological design--asking questions, solving problems, interpreting data, and formulating explanations based on evidence.

Will this experience help my students meet national standards for science teaching?

According to A Science Framework for K-12 Science Education (National Research Council 2012), &students cannot fully understand scientific and engineering ideas without engaging in the practices of inquiry and the discourses by which such ideas are developed and refined.& (p. 218) And yet, many teachers have, themselves, never had the opportunity to inquire into their own scientific and engineering ideas. While many university laboratory experiences include at least some aspects of authentic science inquiry, all too often they have pre-determined outcomes and are based on questions which reflect not the interests of teaching majors, but the limitations of time, space, and budget. The HAB program gives pre-service teachers the opportunity to practice the same inquiry skills they will later teach. In so doing, they will have met the following National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) Pre-service Science Standards:

NSTA Standard 1- Content Knowledge: Effective teachers of science understand and articulate the knowledge and practices of contemporary science. They interrelate and interpret important concepts, ideas, and applications in their fields of licensure.

Pre-service teachers will:

  • 1A. Understand the major concepts principles, theories, laws, and interrelationships of their fields of licensure and supporting fields as recommended by the National Science Teachers Association.
  • 1B. Understand the central concepts of the supporting disciplines and the supporting role of science-specific technology.

NSTA Standard 2- Content Pedagogy: Effective teachers of science understand how students learn and develop scientific knowledge. Pre-service teachers use scientific inquiry to develop this knowledge for all students.

Pre-service teachers will:

  • 2B. Include active inquiry lessons where students collect and interpret data in order to develop and communicate concepts and understandings, scientific processes, relationships, and natural patterns from empirical experiments. Applications of science-specific technology are included in the lesson where appropriate.

How is the website organized?

For the science methods classroom, the Teaching on the Edge website has two functions. First, it is meant to be an organizer for you, if you wish to include a real-world science inquiry using high altitude balloons in your curriculum. There are balloon experiment assignments and field experience assignments that can be added to your syllabus, as well as a time-line showing about how many days you should set aside for their completion. There is also teacher background information on the history of high altitude balloons and on the Earth’s atmosphere, so that you can introduce the topic to your students without the need for extra preparation. Once your students design and launch their experiments, collect and analyze their data, and make the presentations of their results (based on either a real launch or a simulation), the website will then function as a unit plan generator. The website contains sample lesson plans, activity ideas, videos, still photographs, archived data sets, descriptions of balloon experiments already “flown” on a high altitude balloon, and lists of potential experiments that 5th-8th grade students can choose to “fly” themselves, your pre-service teachers can leave your classroom with an inquiry unit plan that will be ready when they are. Their unit could last a few days or a few weeks. It could cover earth/space concepts, physical science concepts, life science concepts, or a combination of the three. Put simply, the materials found here can be used in any order and in any combination that makes the most sense for them. The story their unit tells will depend on what website components they choose and in what sequence they choose to arrange them. Ideally, they would include pre-launch lessons that introduce and set the stage for the design, launch, and analysis process as well as post-launch lessons that allow for the application and extension of skills and knowledge gained. In our scenario, once the teaching majors had experienced the balloon launch themselves, they planned and taught lessons to 5th-8th grade students who, in turn, designed experiments and launched their own balloons.

Click here to go to the resources page.

What is the function of the iBook?

The iBook is a supplement to the website that is meant to be a handy reference and portable resource for students (either your own or the 5th-8th grade students they will teach). We have loaded it with basic information about high altitude balloons and included three lessons that teach basic strategies for understanding how GPS works, how the scientific method operates, and how the earth’s atmosphere is a system of interrelated parts.

The iBook is divided into four sections that guides the students through all the different aspects of high-altitude ballooning. These four sections have been put together in an interactive, visually stimulating way that is meant to excite the students. The first section details the history of high-altitude ballooning along with providing an educational background on the mechanics that make them work as well as the tools that they utilize. The second section provides students with a detailed explanation of the different mechanics and functions of the atmosphere. The third section provides the students with a look at the different parts of a launch, from planning to retrieval. The final section is where students will participate in hands-on lessons.

Click HERE to download from the iTunes Bookstore

Can I use the website successfully without access to a real balloon launch?

Yes! Because the website contains data sets from actual balloon flights, you can simulate a balloon launch and recovery and then have methods students analyze real temperature, pressure, altitude, longitude, latitude, humidity, light intensity, and cosmic radiation changes that occurred over a two hour time span as the balloon lifted quickly to heights of 90,000 feet, burst suddenly, and drifted slowly back to earth. There are two flight simulation packages (archived data) to choose from. Each contains a list of the experiments (balloon experiments and final reports) that our balloon carried; a data set that the balloon’s sensors recorded; a data set annotations that translate important or unusual numerical readings into textual explanations; weather maps for the day; still photos and videos of the pre-launch, flight, and recovery activities; flight trajectory maps; and presentations (in the form of either written reports or PowerPoint slide shows) of all the experimental results.

Even if you don’t have the means to launch your own balloon, your students can still experience this exciting real-world adventure, as long as they ask the same set of experimental questions that our students did here in Indiana. While we provide you with the list of questions, your students can still research those questions to find out what scientists already know about the underlying phenomena that the questions ask; they can still predict what will happen when those experiments “fly;” and they can still design and build the experimental apparatus that will collect their data. Finally, they can still perform their own analysis of that data (data provided by us) and end with their own presentation of results. Because our students had to deal with real in-flight problems like lost data feeds, frozen cameras, and broken bottle seals, so will your students find out that things don’t always go as planned. When our students didn’t get all the data they needed to answer their experimental questions, they had to devise alternative solutions. Knowing that a second launch would not be possible, they took their experiments to the lab and simulated the low pressure/low temperature environment of near space on the materials they were testing---again, something that your students can do, as well.

(Note: Our final research presentations are provided only as examples of what can be done following a balloon flight; they should not be made available in advance to students who are attempting to answer the same questions. If your methods class does not include a field experience, your undergraduates will not have the opportunity to teach their newly acquired skills and knowledge to younger students as ours did. They should, however, be able to use the website resources and materials to develop a high altitude balloon unit of instruction that they can use later in their own classroom.)

How can I get help incorporating a real balloon launch into my methods class?

We have provided you with two possible scenarios. One is to locate a university near you that is part of our HAB core network of institutions. Those individuals can assist you in designing experiments to be flown in their balloons (which typically happens once each semester in an undergraduate science class). Ball State and Taylor are two such universities. Another scenario is to contact one of two service providers that are spin-off companies of our original grant work: NearSpace Launch, Inc. and StratoStar Systems, LLC. NearSpace Launch is a “launch for hire” business that allows you to build your own experimental payloads that are flown on their balloons, using their tracking and data streaming equipment. Your students watch a live video of the whole event without ever leaving the classroom. Because your experiments can be flown in combination with other schools and you purchase no equipment of your own, the cost is minimal---from $150 to $200 per pound of payload weight. StratoStar Systems also provides customized launch and retrieval services, but you purchase your own balloon, rigging, antennas, and probes from them up-front.

Why is there a separate space on the website for middle school teachers?

Bringing high altitude balloons to the science methods classroom is only half of our mission. We also want to make it possible for middle level science teachers and their students to have the same experience—even if those teachers didn’t have the same opportunity in their own methods class.

Click here to go to the Middle School Teachers page.

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