Students learn science with high altitude balloons

A new hands-on way of learning science is making its way into Saskatchewan high schools — high altitude balloons that allow students to conduct their own research.

"It's a weather balloon, and weather balloon doesn't sound super exciting, so we say space balloon instead," said David Gerhard, a professor at the University of Regina, and one of the people introducing this technology into Saskatchewan schools. 

These "space balloons" do get as far as the edge of space, into the stratosphere. Connected to them is a payload of components that will document its flight. This includes a camera that will take video, and instruments that will measure atmospheric conditions, such as a gas sensor that will measure carbon monoxide. 

After about two hours, the balloon will burst, and the payload will float down by parachute. The students will then track it by GPS, pick it up, and analyse the data it collected. 

Gerhard said it's all about making science accessible to students.

"Science classes can get dry if you're looking at experiments other people have done," he said, as he spent his morning helping Miller High School students in Regina launch a balloon. "But this is a new thing. This is a real experiment, we honestly don't know what will happen... it's real, it's messy, it could go wrong, it could go horribly wrong, we have no idea. That's exciting, I think. It engages students in science in a way that reading textbooks about someone else doing science doesn't quite."

Gabrielle Kyrylchuk is part of Miller's Environmental Science class that launched the balloon. She met with her class during holiday time to launch the balloon.

"This is a totally new experience and it's really exciting to actually do it and see what's going on," Kyrylchuk said. "I love that it's hands on. I'd prefer that to anything else, because it's different than in-school learning, taking notes. You're actually in the field and you get to do stuff."

The project is headed by a group at the University of Regina. The team members won a science promotion grant from NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) that allows them to introduce the project to students. In April and May they are launching with high schools across Regina, and universities across the country. 

The team has been working with consultants and teachers from the province to incorporate this into the Saskatchewan high school curriculum.