CORVALLIS, Ore. - Ron Rinehart, a master's degree candidate in geosciences at Oregon State University (OSU), recalls that as a child "my ticket into science was my library card." Now he's helping Oregon school kids punch a ticket that's lighter than air: a helium-filled balloon lofting an experiment they designed up to 120,000 feet above the Earth.
Rinehart works with school kids around the state in LaunchOregon, a balloon satellite project that is one of many programs of the Oregon NASA Space Grant Consortium (OSGC). He's one of eight OSU students involved in the program, which has reached hundreds of children.
The NASA-funded program provides an affordable way to expose students of all ages to hands-on experience in science, engineering and mathematics in a near-space environment. But the students acquire much more than academic skills. They also develop social and organizational skills, such as team building and time management, and gain exposure to higher education and career opportunities.
Jack Higginbotham, director of the consortium, says the program aims "to wed hardcore science to students' interests" and, more fundamentally, "to engage students in progressive ways to nurture the sense of amazement" that lies at the root of scientific endeavor.
Catherine Lanier, the assistant director of OSGC, oversees the students and programs. Like her OSU colleagues, she's as much a fan as a facilitator, saying she loves seeing kids in the program blossom.
In the balloon program, students design experimental packages to launch. The only practical restrictions are size and weight. The balloons can lift up to 12 pounds. The payload module, which carries the experiment, is about 5 inches square; the command module beneath it, which enables the team to track the balloon, is slightly bigger. No animals are used because the ascent would be lethal.
The kids take an active role every step of the way. Guided by their teachers and OSU staffers, they build the modules from components provided in kits, create the experiments, even ride in a chase vehicle to recover a balloon after it's landed and been located by the signals it sends.
The sky's the limit, so to speak, on the type of experiments the kids can create. They can take aerial photographs or measure barometric pressure, temperature and even ozone levels.
Faulconer-Chapman, a K-8 school in Sheridan, Ore., serves more than 600 students. As Oregon's only NASA Explorer School and one of 50 such original schools around the nation, the school partners with NASA to bring engaging math, science and technology learning to teachers, students and families. The school can receive up to $17,500 over a three-year period to acquire technology tools to support science and math education.
Eighty percent of the explorer schools are in high-poverty areas, with 75 percent representing predominantly minority communities. Faulconer-Chapman fits the profile. Carol Clark teaches 5th grade there. This year students from grades 4-8 will work together under her and Rinehart's guidance. They will build several payload modules, doing everything from math calculations to soldering while learning about technologies such as tracking and remote sensing.
Visits to OSU science facilities, Clark said, "have made the kids see there are opportunities in higher education" about which they might not have known. Equally valuable, she added, is the inspiration that OSU faculty and staff provide.
"It's made a huge difference to have that mentoring," Clark said. "I can't say enough about it. It's a big thing to the kids. They've opened so many doors to our students."
Higginbotham takes pride in the fact that the program attracts students perhaps unlikely to become involved in science. "You might have a kid who knows how to solder, and suddenly here's a place where that skill is valued," he says. The program also engages their families, who follow the progress of the balloon project because they see how much their kids get out of it.
Rinehart says the OSU contingent receives much in return. The kids' enthusiasm and the mentoring relationships he has developed, for example, have cemented his desire to teach children and teenagers. One of his main goals is to get secondary school students and teachers interested in using geographic information systems (GIS) analysis, in which OSU takes a leading role nationwide, and computer imaging technology. "I want to make this as accessible as I can," he said.
The program launched its first balloon in August in a partnership with Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls. A second launch took place Oct. 14 at Newport Middle School in Newport, Ore., in conjunction with a national science teachers' conference. The balloon landed in Castle Rock, Wash., and the OSGC team is in the process of retrieving it.
Both balloons carried a camera on a timing circuit that takes pictures every three minutes and a HOBO Temperature Logger, a device that monitors temperature inside and outside the payload box.
More information about the balloon satellite program and other OSGC activities is available at www.oregonspacegrant.orst.edu.
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Jack Higginbotham, 541-737-9088