WCSU mentors assist Danbury students with weather balloon launch
Westside Middle School Academy STEM program project puts two balloons with payloads aloft

Image of weather balloon launchDANBURY, CONN. Meteorology students from Western Connecticut State University provided mentoring and technical support for the STEM program at Westside Middle School Academy in Danbury to carry out the successful launch of two weather balloons on Saturday, June 6, 2015, as a lesson in the tools used to track upper-atmospheric conditions on a daily basis worldwide.

Members of the WCSU Meteorology Club, under the guidance of club adviser and Assistant to the Director of Meteorological Studies Gary Lessor, teamed up this spring with Westside instructor Jonathan Neuhausel and eighth-grade students in the middle school’s STEM program to plan the project and prepare the weather balloon payloads for launch. The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) curriculum is one of two core programs, along with Global Studies, offered by the Danbury Public Schools system at the Westside Middle School Academy, which opened in fall 2014 as an educational center for grades 6 through 8.

Jennifer Dums, of Madison, a Meteorology Club member and WCSU Weather Center intern who graduated from Western in May with a B.S. in Operational Meteorology, worked with Neuhausel and Westside Academy STEM students to design and build two payloads for each of the weather balloons. Three of the four payloads carried Arduino sensor packets that took altitude, pressure, temperature and humidity readings, which were recorded on computer chips designed to be removed for download and data analysis after retrieval. Each of the four payloads also carried a Go-Pro camera to provide video from different vantage points during the flight and a GPS unit to enable the project team to track the payloads’ flight, descent and landing sites.

WCSU mentors Dums and Paul Shupenis, of Naugatuck, a WCSU graduate student who earned his bachelor’s degree in meteorology in 2011, joined Westside Middle School Academy eighth-graders in the STEM program at the baseball field of Danbury High School for successive balloon launches at 10:54 a.m. and 11:24 a.m. on June 6. The first balloon launched touched down around 1 p.m. in Seymour, while the second balloon remained aloft more than four hours before touching down around 3:15 p.m. in Oxford. Traffic controllers at local airports were advised of the launch times and predicted flight direction.

“We were concerned about the overcast conditions that morning and needed to wait for the cloud cover to diminish before we could launch,” Dums observed. “In the meantime, the students prepared the rigging, parachutes and payloads for liftoff. When everything was ready, Mr. Neuhausel and his students filled the first balloon with helium, tied off the opening and attached the rigging to the balloon. We all counted down from 10, and Mr. Neuhausel released the first balloon. It took only a couple of minutes before we lost sight of it in the clouds.” After brief concern that a balky GPS might scrub launch of the second balloon, the tracking signal activated and the launch proceeded as planned one-half hour after the first liftoff.

“The students and their parents all had a great time during the launch preparations,” Dums said. “Everyone was clearly excited to be there, and it was terrific to talk to the parents about how very proud they were of their kids, and how impressed they were with the complexity of the project.”

During their ascent into the stratosphere, the balloons’ helium inflation pressed their surfaces outward against diminishing atmospheric pressure to the point where the balloons eventually burst, initiating deployment of the parachutes rigged to the payloads for the descent back to earth. All payloads were packaged in Styrofoam casings in an effort to secure the enclosed devices and buffer them from the shock of the touchdown. Both balloons landed in trees, which required Westside Academy to contact owners of the touchdown sites to make arrangements for recovering the payloads so that the project team can download the sensor data and video recordings.

“The balloon project has been a huge success,” Neuhausel remarked. “This project has been a truly student-led project from start to finish. Westside students participated in groups to take charge of ordering equipment, finding launch sites, contacting experts, designing payloads, building and programming scientific sensors, rigging parachutes and launching the balloons. They applied skills from various disciplines and were given the opportunity to make major decisions regarding the project, supported by their teachers only when they sought our help.” The eighth-grade students also organized fundraising efforts to meet a portion of the cost for purchase of the equipment required for the weather balloons and payloads.

“Our partnership with Western was extremely helpful and much appreciated,” Neuhausel added. “We expect to launch balloons again next year, and our school looks forward to working on future projects with the Meteorology Department at Western.”

Dums described Western’s participation in the project as a productive first step in building a collaborative relationship between the university and the STEM program at Westside Middle School Academy, while also affording the Meteorology Club an opportunity to become more engaged with the Danbury community. “Westside instructors identified this weather balloon project and sought Western’s help to work with the students and provide them with our practical experience in meteorology,” she said.

Nehuausel reached out to Lessor and Director of Meteorological Studies Dr. Albert Owino, who organized the participation of Meteorology Club members in the project. The WCSU mentors advised STEM students about weather forecasting, payload design for high-altitude flight, balloon launch preparations and GPS tracking in flight. Dums said the Western team sought to ensure that every participant from the eighth-grade class at Westside Academy was assigned a task to accomplish in the project.

Assuming that the recovered payloads provide data recordings of atmospheric data captured during flight, she noted, Westside students will learn first-hand from their analysis of the data about how the National Weather Service uses weather balloons as a vital tool in daily forecasting. “Although we didn’t launch the balloons at the same time that the NWS does, the students will learn about changes in temperature and pressure at different levels of the atmosphere, which they can then compare to the data from balloon soundings tracked at the nearby NWS stations in Albany and Upton in New York,” she said.

Dums mentored for the project as part of her internship service at the Weather Center, and said that she enjoyed the chance to explore new avenues for sharing her technical knowledge and practical experience in meteorology with middle school students. Her present career objective following her May graduation is to seek a meteorology-related position in the private sector, prospectively in aviation, agriculture or broadcasting.

For more information, contact the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486. To view more photos and a video of the June 6 launch, visit the posting in the “Middle School News” report on the Danbury Public Schools website at https://sites.google.com/a/danbury.k12.ct.us/dps_news/middle_school_news/

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