When six middle-school girls from Bowling Green, Kentucky, got the wild idea to launch a camera into space, they knew there would be big challenges ahead. They would have to learn about everything from weather balloons to high-definition cameras, raise thousands of dollars to buy the gear they needed, and work together (with help from a few trusty adults) to address a host of technical challenges.
Three months later, they had breathtaking photographic evidence -- taken from 22 miles above Earth -- to prove that they had accomplished their mission. Says 12-year-old team member Anna Scifres, "We actually DID this!"
I recently caught up with the team by phone, eager to hear more about why they spent their summer on a STEM project of their own design. They were full of candid insights about what makes a project motivating and why girls shouldn't hesitate to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math. They also reinforced several best practices for project-based learning, which they managed to figure out on their own. Here are five tips worth sharing from Project Terra Incognita.
#1: Aim High
The project idea started with a casual conversation last spring. Anna and a friend dreamed up the idea of sending a camera into space "just because it sounded cool." During recess, Anna mentioned the idea to Mini Ganesh, a classmate with a scientific bent. Mini was on board, although she raised some new questions. "l knew it would be really cold if we could get a camera into the stratosphere. I wasn't sure a camera would even work," Mini says, "but I knew it would be such a great learning experience for us."
Before long, four more girls from Cumberland Trace Elementary School joined the team: Hope Hardison, Emma Brittenham, Lexi Stewart, and Maia Madison. Anna's dad, David Scifres, who happens to be interested in photography, agreed to help.
The girls came up with a plan that they described as "seemingly impossible but absolutely achievable." With summer on the way, they were ready to devote themselves to making it happen.
#2: Share Your Enthusiasm
To fund their project, they turned to Kickstarter, a web-based platform for crowdfunding creative ideas. They posted a video about their project, talked it up on Facebook and Twitter, and crossed their fingers that funders would support them.
"We got backers right away," says Lexi, "from all over the world." Their strategy to build support? "We got excited and shared that with other people. I think they liked our enthusiasm." Social networking tools helped them build momentum, along with more old-fashioned flyers and conversations with friends, family, and anyone else who would listen. Things picked up when NYCResister, a hacker collective in Brooklyn, noticed their Kickstarter pitch and started talking it up on Twitter. Support from another backer, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, brought more visibility to their project.
Anna's dad, who works in internet marketing, says he was surprised by the "viral nature of this. We hit a pocket of people that liked the subject (photography and space). They helped spread it. We got a few key tweets, and then it just blew up!"
By the time the fundraising deadline arrived, they had exceeded their goal, raising a total of $5,100 from 226 backers around the world. To keep their backers informed of project progress, they also started a website called The Edge and Back.
#3: Play to Your Strengths
When I asked the girls about the most valuable skills or insights they gained from their summer project, they didn't hesitate to answer with a chorus of, "Teamwork!"
In the role of mentor, David Scifres says he made a deliberate effort to stay on the sidelines of the project. He watched the girls apply collaboration skills to get organized. "They made plans together, outlined the tasks, and then thought about their individual strengths. What did each of them have to contribute? Then it they divided the tasks, playing to each of their strengths," he says.
Emma, who describes her role as "the order-keeping person on the team," explains that the girls wanted to share leadership across the whole team. "We didn't want one person in charge. It just seemed better to us if everybody worked together and shared responsibility."
#4: Don't Let Roadblocks Stop You
Despite the obvious enthusiasm of the team members, they did run into occasional setbacks. A worldwide helium shortage, for instance, threatened to keep their weather balloon grounded. Undaunted, the girls worked their networks for answers and discovered that one of their grandfathers had a business contact who could supply the helium they needed. That got them back on track toward a launch date in late July.
On launch day, family and friends gathered to watch them send up the balloon and its payload: two high-definition video cameras, one high-resolution still camera, and three GPS trackers to help them locate it when it returned to Earth. Up went the balloon under clear Kentucky skies, reaching 118,000 feet (just over 22 miles) before coming back down. Two-and-a-half hours later, when the GPS devices indicated a location back on the ground, the girls and their adult drivers set off on a cross-country hunt, tracking the coordinates until they reached a field behind a church in Lafayette, Tennessee. Steep hills, brambles, and barbed-wire fence stood in the way of their payload, but as Anna relates, "nothing was going to keep us from getting it back."
#5: Pass it On
With the new school year underway, the girls are busy with their next challenge: middle school. Now seventh-graders at Drakes Creek Middle School, they plan to make a return trip this fall to their former elementary school and make a presentation about their summer project. "That's where the learning comes in," says David, reinforcing the value of end-of-project presentations. "You have to not only plan it and do it, but then be able to communicate what you did and, maybe, inspire others." Naturally, the girls are taking a collaborative approach to developing their presentation.
Mini hopes they might inspire more girls to pursue science, a subject she loves "because it's so many things." Emma plans to share a message about persistence. "Don't be afraid to try something. Do what you want to do." The girls also plan to give their former principal, Dr. Mary Evans, a poster that includes their photos taken from the stratosphere, a lasting reminder of a most excellent summer adventure.