Teaching on the Edge

Using High-Altitude Ballooning in the Classroom

Pre/In Service Teachers

Everything you need to teach high-altitude ballooning in the middle school classroom.

Download Lesson Plans » | Jump to FAQ »

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 students in the middle grades (5th-8th). 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.

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.

What can I expect to find on the website?

The Teaching on the Edge website will allow you and your students 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 you to use as you 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. The sample materials found here will provide ample opportunities for your students to engage 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 I be able to meet STEM standards using this curriculum?

The lessons collected here include not only discipline-specific science and mathematics content connections, but also include connections related to the development of skills and processes that are essential elements in all STEM fields. Depending on what combination of lesson plans and activities you choose from the website to design your HAB instructional unit, your students will have addressed some or all of the following Next Generation Science standards:

ESS: Earth & Space Sciences
MS ESS2: Earth’s Systems
Disciplinary Core Ideas:

  • ESS2.C: The Roles of Water in Earth’s Surface Processes
    • The complex patterns of the changes and the movement of water in the atmosphere, determined by winds, landforms, and ocean temperatures and currents, are major determinants of local weather patterns.
  • ESS2.D: Weather and Climate
    • Weather and climate are influenced by interactions involving sunlight, the ocean, the atmosphere, ice, landforms, and living things. These interactions vary with latitude, altitude, and local and regional geography, all of which can affect ocean and atmospheric flow patterns.

Cross-cutting Concepts:

  • Patterns
    • Patterns in rates of change and other numerical relationships can provide information about natural systems.
  • Cause and Effect
    • Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural or designed systems.

Science & Engineering Practices:

  • Planning & carrying out Investigations
    • Collect data to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence to answer scientific questions or test design solutions under a range of conditions.
  • Analyzing & Interpreting Data
    • Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for phenomena.
  • Constructing Explanations & Designing Solutions
    • Construct a scientific explanation based on valid and reliable evidence obtained from sources (including he student’s own experiments) and the assumption that theories and laws that describe nature operate today as they did in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

Common Core State Standards Connections:

  • ELA/Literacy
    • RST.6-8.7 Integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually (e.g., in a flowchart, diagram, model, graph, or table).
    • RST.6-8.9 Compare and contrast the information gained from experiments, simulations, video, or multimedia sources with that gained from reading a text on the same topic.
    • SL.8.5 Include multimedia components and visual displays in presentations to clarify claims and findings and emphasize salient points.
  • Mathematics
    • 6.NS.C.5 Understand that positive and negative numbers are used together to describe quantities or values (e.g., temperature above/below zero, elevation above/below sea level, credits/debits, positive/negative electric charge); use positive and negative numbers to represent quantities in real-world contexts, explaining the meaning of zero in each situation.

PS: Physical Sciences
MS PS1: Matter and Its Interactions
Disciplinary Core Ideas:

  • PS1.A: Structure and Properties of Matter
    • In a liquid, the molecules are constantly in contact with others; in a gas, they are widely spaced except when they happen to collide. In a solid, they are closely spaced and may vibrate in position but do not change relative positions.
    • The changes of state that occur with variations in temperature or pressure can be described and predicted using these models of matter.

Connections to Nature of Science:

  • Scientific Knowledge is Based on Empirical Evidence
    • Scientific knowledge is based upon logical and conceptual connections between evidence and explanation.
  • Science Models, Laws, Mechanisms, and Theories Explain Natural Phenomena
    • Laws are regularities or mathematical descriptions of natural phenomena.

Common Core State Standards Connections:

  • ELA/Literacy
    • RST.6-8.3 Follow precisely a multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks.
    • WHST.6-8.7 Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
  • Mathematics
    • 6.RP.A.3 Use ratio and rate reasoning to solve real-world and mathematical problems.
    • 6SP.B.4 Display numerical data in plots on a number line, including dot plots, histograms, and box plots.
    • 6.SP.B.5 Summarize numerical data sets in relation to their context.

MS PS3: Energy
Disciplinary Core Ideas:

  • PS3.A: Definitions of Energy
    • Temperature is the measure of the average kinetic energy of particles of matter. The relationship between the temperature and the total energy of a system depends on the types, states, and amounts of matter present.
  • PS3.B: Conservation of Energy and Energy Transfer
    • The amount of energy transfer needed to change the temperature of a matter sample by a given amount depends on the nature of the matter, the size of the sample, and the environment.

Crosscutting Concepts:

  • Scale, Proportion, and Quantity
    • Proportional relationships (e.g., speed as the ratio of distance traveled to time) among different types of quantities provide information about the magnitude of properties and processes.

Science and Engineering Practices:

  • Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
    • Plan an investigation individually and collaboratively and in the design: identify independent and dependent variables and controls, what tools are needed to do the gathering, how measurements will be recorded, and how many data are needed to support a claim.
  • Analyzing and Interpreting Data
    • Construct and interpret graphical displays of data to identify linear and nonlinear relationships.

Common Core State Standards Connections:

  • ELA/Literacy
    • WHST.6-8.1 Write arguments based on discipline content.
  • Mathematics
    • 6.RP.A.1 Understand the concept of ratio and use ratio language to describe a ratio relationship between two quantities.
    • 7.RP.A.2 Recognize and represent proportional relationships between quantities.
    • MS PS4: Waves and their Applications in Technologies for Information Transfer

Disciplinary Core Ideas:

  • PS4.A: Wave Properties
    • A simple wave has a repeating pattern with a specific wavelength, frequency, and amplitude.
    • A wave needs a medium through which it is transmitted.
  • PS4.B: Electromagnetic Radiation
    • When light shines on an object, it is reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through the object, depending on the object’s materials and the frequency of the light.

Science and Engineering Practices:

  • Using Mathematical and Computational Thinking
    • Use mathematical representation to describe and/or support scientific conclusions and design solutions.
  • Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information
    • Integrate qualitative scientific and technical information in written text with that contained in media and visual displays to clarify claims and findings.

Common Core State Standards Connections:

  • ELA/Literacy
    • WHST.6-8.9 Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
  • Mathematics
    • 8.F.A.3 Interpret the equation y=mx+b as defining a linear function, whose graph is a straight line; give examples of functions that are not linear.

LS: Life Sciences
MS LS1: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes
Disciplinary Core Ideas:

  • LS1.A: Structure and Function
    • All living things are made up of cells, which are the smallest unit that can be said to be alive. An organism may consist of one single cell (unicellular) or many different numbers and types of cells (multi-cellular).
    • Within cells, specialized structures are responsible for particular functions, and the cell membrane forms the boundary that controls what enters and leaves the cell.
    • In multi-cellular organisms, the body is a system of multiple interacting subsystems. These subsystems are groups of cells that work together to form tissues and organs that are specialized for particular body functions.

Common Core State Standards Connections:

  • Mathematics
    • 6.EE.C.9 Use variables to represent two quantities in a real-world problem that change in relationship to one another; write an equation to express one quantity, thought of as the dependent variable, in terms of the other quantity, thought of as the independent variable. Analyze the relationship between the dependent and independent variables using graphs and tables and relate these to the equation.

How is the website organized?

The Teaching on the Edge website is meant to be a unit plan generator. It contains sample lesson plans, activity ideas, PowerPoint presentations, videos, still photographs, archived data sets, teacher background information, descriptions of balloon experiments already “flown” on a high altitude balloon, and lists of potential experiments that your students can choose to “fly” themselves. You are free to pick and choose from the website’s various components to create a unit of instruction that best suits your students’ needs and that takes into consideration your own school resources. Your unit could last a few days or a few weeks. It could cover earth/space science 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 you. The story your unit tells will depend on what website components you choose and in what sequence you choose to arrange them. Remember that the website was designed for teachers, not students, as it includes many more details and examples than middle level students will need.

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. 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 students analyze real temperature, pressure, altitude, longitude, latitude, humidity, 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 to choose from. Each contains a list of the experiments that the balloon carried; a data set that the balloon’s sensors recorded; 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.

Without the means to launch your own experiments, 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.)

Click here to go to the simulated flights page.

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

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 university faculty?

Bringing high altitude balloons to 5-8 classrooms is only half of our mission. We also want to make it possible for pre-service science teachers to have the same experience. Our goal is to prepare middle level science teachers who are confident and capable of leading their own students in scientific inquiry. If that is going to happen, these teaching majors must have comparable inquiry experiences of their own. We have provided university methods instructors with a plan and rationale for doing so.

Click here to go to the University Faculty page.

Video interviews