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Near-Space Balloon Launch Inspires Flagstaff Sixth Graders In Science

Northland Preparatory Academy students
(Photo courtesy of Northland Preparatory Academy)
Northland Preparatory Academy students prepare to release the balloon.

Arizona ranks high in the nation for growth in science and technology careers — but it’s near the bottom when it comes to preparing students for those fields. That’s something a Flagstaff science teacher has set out to change.

For the third year running, Kaci Heins of Northland Preparatory Academy has put her sixth graders in charge of launching a weather balloon to the edge of space. It’s a project meant not simply to teach, but to inspire.

Heins shapes her entire science curriculum around the balloon launch. The goal is to reach 100,000 feet — almost into the vacuum of space. To make the giant helium balloon work in those conditions, the students have to learn engineering, math and meteorology. But there’s no quiet reading of textbooks in this classroom.

The students are split into teams. Celeste Martin and Sol Clifford are members of the payload team, in charge of getting the balloon’s scientific instruments ready for launch.

“I’m making the box that will have everything in it,” Martin said.

“And then we’re going to attach that to the balloon and the parachute and we’re going to send it into the stratosphere, and hopefully it won’t hit the jet stream, otherwise it’s going over to maybe Florida," said Clifford.

Other teams handle everything from GPS tracking to social media. Ben Young designs the plastic pieces built by the classroom’s 3D printer. He just fitted the balloon’s camera into its bright yellow holder.

“(We’re) having trouble with it, but we finally got it in, so I’m just excited about that,” he said.   

“Excited” is the key word here. That’s the whole point, said Heins.

“I want my class to make an impact on kids and really steer them toward careers in science, technology, engineering and math,” she said. “But we’ve got to be able to provide the right experiences for the kids to get them hooked, especially in middle school. I think it’s critical to hook them in middle school.”   

Jobs in science and technology are expected to grow. Yet only 16 percent of high school seniors nationwide are interested in those careers and have the math skills to pursue them.

In a survey of eighth-grade science teachers in Arizona, less than half reported having the resources they need. Heins applies for grants from NASA and the National Weather Association to fund the balloon project. It’s all to foster the dreams her students already have about their futures.  

Bruce Sidlinger is an aerospace engineer who volunteers on the project. He said Launch Day recreates the inspiration of the Apollo Era, when kids were motivated to study science. “It doesn’t really matter too much if the balloon completes its mission or if it’s recovered afterward, he said. “What matters is the learning leading up to the release of the balloon. Everything they learn in here, they’re desperate for that information.”  

On March 9, Launch Day, the students gather in Sidlinger’s hangar at the Flagstaff Airport. They crowd around the balloon, attaching their scientific instruments. The hangar doors open and Kaci Heins carries the balloon outside. Sixth-grader Rylee Kellar holds its tether while the crowd starts to count down. Cheers erupt as the balloon is released.

Soon the balloon is a small white speck in the sky. But for Heins, the big moment is still to come: watching her students watch the video feed from the camera attached to the balloon.

“You see this awe and wonder in their face and their eyes, and their mouths are hanging open, because they see the blackness of space and they see our planet there, and it’s just really cool, because they’re never going to forget that," said Heins.

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Melissa grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of Arizona and an M.FA. in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University.