Howard Library HiTech teens inspired by weather balloon

August 15, 2013|By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

When students from the Howard County Public Library's HiTech digital media lab launched a weather balloon from Columbia on Wednesday, they predicted where it would land.

Bianca Brade, 14, guessed somewhere in Virginia, in part because of proximity and the time the balloon would be airborne. Instead, it was spotted on the Jersey shore less than 24 hours later.

But Bianca wasn't a bit disappointed.

"I liked most, actually, seeing the balloon fly away. That was really cool," she said.

Bianca was one of several students who took part in the launch, which marked the culmination of the summer curriculum for HiTech. The media lab engages students throughout the year in hands-on classes centered on science, math, engineering and mathematics.

The weather balloon launch was conceived by library STEM instructor Bryan Johnson.

The balloon carried circuit boards to collect high-altitude weather data, a GPS tracking device and a camera. All told, the equipment weighed about 1.5 pounds.

The devices were placed in a container and attached to the balloon, 5 feet in diameter, which also carried a parachute. The flight was expected to last about eight hours, and students tracked the balloon online.

Before takeoff, Johnson had to contact the Federal Aviation Administration for clearance.

"I had to contact BWI Airport, which transferred me to [an FAA administrator] in Atlanta in charge for high-altitude balloons and rockets," he said.

"They said as long as the payload is less than 6 pounds and it was over 10 miles away from the nearest airport, it was OK," Johnson said.

The weather balloon was among several projects crafted at HiTech, which involves students ages 11-18. Other creations have included a mobile game — which has been downloaded 6,000 times from 30 countries — and an e-book on Choose Civility, the county initiative launched and led by the library system that encourages residents to embrace tolerance, respect and empathy.

Angela Brade, chief operating officer for the library system and Bianca's mother, said HiTech was created via an 18-month, $100,000 STEM grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the MacArthur Foundation.

More than 3,300 students have taken part in HiTech, which will resume in October, Brade said. HiTech's media lab is housed at the East Columbia library branch.

"From the outset, we've focused on creating opportunities for STEM careers," Brade said. "We looked for kids who have an interest in math and we said, 'What can you do with that math and how can you make it real to you?' Often students hear about it in class, but we wanted students busting down the doors wanting to learn more."

Bianca said she signed up for the HiTech's summer curriculum after her mom mentioned it. She said the class was surprisingly fun.

"Usually, when you go into a class like that, you don't do anything. Teachers do it. But it was fun to fill the balloon and cut the string and let it go," said Bianca, a rising ninth-grader at River Hill High School.

The balloon was spotted in Brick, N.J., an ocean town about 186 miles from Columbia. Johnson said he believes the balloon ultimately drifted out into the ocean.

"It was pretty windy, so I'm not surprised that the balloon carried all the way to New Jersey," he said.

Earlier this month, HiTech students launched a similar "test" balloon, and on Thursday, Johnson was headed to a forest near a landfill in Laurel, Del., to retrieve it. It landed there after reaching altitudes of up to 30,000 feet, he said.

The distance from Columbia to Laurel: 104 miles.

"I hope one thing they learned," Johnson said of his students, "is how meteorologists help predict the weather, how weather balloons are used to predict the weather, and how complicated it is to rig one."

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