ST. PETER, Minn. - "Once we inflate the balloon, we actually want to get rid of it as quickly as possible." James Flaten, Ph.D, is Associate Program Director of the MN Space Grant Consortium. He works with NASA and typically he teaches college students at the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota.
On this day he's surrounded by students from Dimensions Academy, the gifted and talented program in Bloomington Public Schools.
Eighth grade science teacher Joy Kalkofen watches as her Oak Grove Middle School students hover over their projects. "We've been working on a project where we're designing an experiment to be flown in a payload that's carried by a weather balloon."
Several projects, actually. Most of them involving seeds that will be exposed to radiation in the atmosphere at heights of 90,000 to 100,000 feet. "Will they germinate at different rates? Will they grow at different rates?" wonders teacher Adam Kimpton, who is helping his Olson Middle School eighth graders secure their payloads.
The launch site is Linneaus Arboretum at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. Flaten's students will actually inflate the balloon, then help with the chase to retrieve it once the balloon reaches altitude and pops. At that point the experiments will descend toward earth in their payloads that will hopefully withstand the impact.
The reason Flaten wants to launch the balloon as soon as it's inflated is and wind can make the car-sized balloon tough to handle on the ground.
It's an impressive sight -- and one Flaten hopes will resonate with the 8th graders. "Basically, I won't have any university kids to work with if we don't get kids interested when they are a bit younger," he said.
"My biggest hope is that they (the students) come out asking more questions," said Kimpton. The eighth grade science classes studied the earth's atmosphere and weather conditions so they could better understand what kind of experiments to design.
"Five, four, three, two, one!" The balloon lifts and quickly disappears into a cloud-white sky. With students ooh-ing and aah-ing on the ground, Flaten and his team quickly pack up and prepare for the chase. They will be followed by the middle school team.
Flaten's team remains in contact with the balloon with signals sent via the internet. The finally locate it south of Zumbro Bottoms State Forest near Zumbrota -- about a hundred miles away. In a tree.
The experiments are now back in the hands of the Oak Grove and Olson Middle School students. Probably one science experiment they'll remember for quite some time.