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The High Hopes Project: A Model For Global STEM Learning

Brian Crosby

STEM Learning Facilitator for Northwest Nevada
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View of Earth from 95,000 feet above
Near space view of Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake from above 95,000 feet. Note the thin blue line of the atmosphere and the black of space. Taken June 2014 during test flight from Lake Tahoe.

In my job as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) learning facilitator, I find too often that what passes for quality STEM learning leaves me wanting. I've had educators explain that, because their students experience science class twice a week for 30 minutes, visit the computer lab 30-45 minutes per week, attend math class every day, and occasionally experience an engineering activity, they are a STEM class or school.

Partly to counter those misconceptions, but mostly to model the powerful learning possibilities inherent in an integrated inquiry and problem-based global STEM project, we decided to facilitate the latest iteration of the High Hopes Project. This spring, the project will launch into the stratosphere several high-altitude balloons that include student-designed and -built payloads.

The students involved in the project attend two Title 1 schools from Sparks, Nevada -- Sparks Middle School and Sparks High School, both with high percentages of students on free and reduced-priced lunch -- and Cottonwood Elementary School, a K-4 school in Fernley, Nevada. While these students are taking lead roles in the High Hopes Project, there's space for all comers.

Challenges For All Students

Everyone is invited to explore and help answer the following challenges:

  • What are the characteristics of Earth's atmosphere as you ascend up to near space? That's 30,500 meters or 100,000 feet! At that altitude, you are above 95 percent of the Earth's atmosphere.
  • How will those characteristics affect the efficiency of a solar panel?
  • What will happen to party balloons inflated to different sizes?
  • How fast does a weather balloon travel as it rises through the atmosphere?

Follow the links provided above for more information on each challenge, and revisit the project wiki often to find new challenges posted.

After the flights, we will post the photos, video, and data we've gathered so that everyone can learn what happened to the various experiments we send aloft, along with the air temperature, water and air pressure, and other readings as well.

A Model of Collaboration

Project participants are utilizing a blog, Twitter, a web page, YouTube, Google Docs, a Flickr photo site, and a wiki page to solicit and archive the High Hopes of the world. Anyone can submit their High Hopes, and students from around the globe are requested to share High Hopes for their education, community, and the world. We have already received High Hopes from the U.S., but also from places as far away as Norway and Turkey!

Once submitted through the web page or Twitter, the Hopes are automatically archived in a Google Spreadsheet. Before launch, they will be printed on small strips of paper and loaded in two specialized payloads designed by Sparks High School students. Next, Sparks Middle School students will design latches to open the payloads at two different altitudes. One, containing most of the Hopes, will open in near space, while the other will be designed to open much earlier to release the Hopes that Cottonwood Elementary students are engineering to glide, flutter, or helicopter slowly to the ground. In addition, the Cottonwood students are performing bioengineering experiments designed to identify a substance for pre-treating the paper to speed decomposition once the Hopes reach Earth.

An additional mode for collaboration is being modeled as well. Graduate and undergraduate engineering students from the mechanical engineering and materials sciences departments at the University of Nevada, Reno, are mentoring the K-12 students along the way. They've already met with the high school students designing the water pressure gauge that will be hung from the balloon and lowered 45 meters (150 feet) deep in the crystal clear waters of Lake Tahoe. The gauge, along with the GoPro cameras used to record its readings and archive the journey, will be hauled up through the water by the ascending balloon when launched from just above the water's surface.

The middle school students are designing a latch release that will utilize an Arduino, an open-source electronics platform programmed by writing code in the Arduino programming language. The device will most likely be programmed as an altimeter that will trigger the release mechanism when the predetermined altitude is reached. To learn the programming language, the engineering students are teaching their middle school partners about rocketry. The rockets will contain a mini-Arduino that the seventh and eighth grade students will learn to program for recording the rockets' maximum altitude. Based on their findings, they will then program the Arduinos triggering the High Hopes payloads to open.

Sparks Middle School student learning how to program Arduinos.

During flight, payloads containing communications equipment are included. This enables students to track the balloon in real time, and also to locate and retrieve it upon landing.

Global Participation Encouraged

The project websites will also feature science, engineering, math, and language arts learning challenges that students worldwide are invited to solve or participate in.

Several launch dates are scheduled in April, May, and June 2015. You and the world are requested to participate! Follow the High Hopes Blog to note updates about launch times, to watch the progress in preparation, and for other challenges that you can join. We have high hopes that your students will be participants in this model global STEM project!

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Brian Crosby

STEM Learning Facilitator for Northwest Nevada

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Brian Crosby's picture
Brian Crosby
STEM Learning Facilitator for Northwest Nevada

Perhaps - Yes art is vital - not sure we need to change STEM to STEAM however ... if we did I wouldn't be opposed, just think it sends the wrong message. Neither STEM or STEAM includes social studies and that is narrowed out of many schools' curriculums, should we change to "STEAMSS"? or how about adding reading to round things out and make it STREAMSS? How about adding Universal Pe since so many children are woefully out of shape and make it UPSTREAMSS? If something isn't included does that send the message that those subjects not included in the acronym aren't required or important? Personally I'd like to call it BRIC for Broad Rich Inclusive Curriculum - Not trying to be pithy ... and as the STEM Learning Facilitator for much of my state I constantly advocate for integrating the arts and include them in almost every project I demonstrate. The arts should be deeply integrated in our childrens' curriculum (but so should those other subjects ... and I left out others like foreign language) So we can call it STEAM, just not sure we need to put our energy into the label. Thanks for your comment.

Richard Reichenbach's picture

Art provides a lot more than "pretty pictures" it teaches creative/critical thinking which is vital to science and engineering. Watch the documentary "Between the Folds" where math, science, engineering and art are all integrated through the art of origami, the folding of airbags, space exploration, folding of satellites, and the folding of proteins in medical research are all based on origami. In the past there was no difference between scientists and artists look at Da Vinci or Gaudi.

Hillary Hill's picture
Hillary Hill
Social Media Marketing Associate at Edutopia

I absolutely love the idea behind this project and how every grade level gets involved. It's like the movie "Up" got infused with STEM. Can't go wrong there. :)

Daniel Glaser's picture

Regarding STEM, I really wish they had such programs when I was in school. By showing students mathematics in action, this program can really generate an interest in the daily uses of mathematics as a practical tool. Still, STEM is only part of the story. We need STESSLAAM. (Science Technology, Engineering, Social Studies, Language Arts, Arts, and Mathematics) if we want to be able to compete with the rest of the world.
Coding in the classroom is good, but this also needs some language arts along with everything else. There's a reason they're called programming languages. They include practical language components along with the numbers.
If we leave any part of the whole of an education out, we are shortchanging the students as well as leaving out vital pieces of the puzzle.
So, yes, this is a great program, but we also need to have the students write about their experiences, and maybe do an art project to help them express the experience as well as showing them how this type of technology will effect future societies. In short, all parts of education are just as necessary. Yes the STEM is important, but so's the rest of the plant.

Brian Crosby's picture
Brian Crosby
STEM Learning Facilitator for Northwest Nevada

Couldn't agree more Daniel. There are, and will be writing experiences - both content writing and creative writing. Our focus on this project was definitely on the STEM subjects and writing, connecting, and collaborating because in our jobs we are often asked about what that looks like, and we put this project together specifically to model that. There will be art connections included in the writing. Students will be writing about the balloon's journey from the point of view of the balloon and they will illustrate their stories. Not the strongest art connection, but not every project can involve every content area at a high level (but that is the goal). You might be interested in a past version of this project we did while still in the classroom - its explained in the TEDx talk:
Keep advocating for a broad, rich, inclusive curriculum!

Mary L's picture

This is an awesome idea. This was my first year at a brand new STEM school where we had to develop all our own curriculum with minimal support, yikes. My team and I are always looking for new things that will engage and support our students' learning across all content areas and this is fantastic. It has given me a few ideas of things we can do next year. Thanks!

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