Western Nevada College students learning from high altitude balloon project

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Finals and term papers are nearly completed, meaning most Western Nevada College students are deciding how they’ll divvy up their summer vacation between work and fun.

Not so for a group of WNC science students. They are utilizing the last day of spring semester — weather permitting — to complete research work on their NASA Community of Practice High Altitude Balloon. The eight students, under the supervision of Biology and Chemistry Professor Elizabeth Tattersall, Physics Professor Thomas Herring and Geosciences Professor Winnie Kortemeier, are tentatively scheduled to launch a helium-filled balloon on Friday at Washoe Lake State Park after making adjustments to it following an initial launch May 3.

The purpose of the research project is to learn from the data collected after the high-altitude balloon reaches the stratosphere in northwestern Nevada. The balloon includes a Styrofoam cooler (called a payload) with instruments and sensors that can determine temperature, pressure, radiation, ultraviolet light and dust particulates. Bacteria was sent into the stratosphere in the initial launch to determine how temperature, altitude, radiation and pressure affected its growth.

“It’s a love of science and an interest in research itself,” Tattersall said. “A lot of students don’t have a chance to do original work in their class labs; it’s often cookbook science as opposed to original science.”

Tattersall applied for a grant through NASA last spring, providing funding for the project and the goal of continuing it in the future. Most of the students who participate receive a $1,000 scholarship per semester.

“The reason this is called a Community of Practice is having students work together, not alone, building companionship in science and bouncing ideas off of each other,” Tattersall said.

A wide variety of science interests were represented among research students Abby Bennett, Delaney Frusteri, Jonah Hedlund, Nick Kuntz, Jason Logan, Robin Smuda, Colbey Tracy and Kobey Workman.

The students and professors began the project last August with the students deciding what they wanted to send into the stratosphere. Preparation included ordering an Arduino board and programming it, as well as purchasing soldering wires and deciding on the type of bacteria to include in the balloon payload.

On the first launch, students quickly learned that they needed more helium in the balloon in order for it get off the ground and reach an altitude of 30 kilometers. They were able to keep tabs on the balloon with satellite and radio trackers after it launched at Washoe Lake State Park. The balloon traveled nearly 80 kilometers.

“We chased it in a college van,” Tattersall said. “We were receiving data until just before it hit the ground and we had a pretty good idea where to look for it since it was a quarter mile of where it should have been.”

That landing point happened to be on offseason farmland south of Lahontan Reservoir near Fallon. Since then, the students have been meeting to make the second launch more informative.

“I’ve never had a hands-on research project and I learned a lot,” Logan said. “Through the project many of the students earned their ham radio licenses, learned a lot about electronics. This time we should be able to get a lot more information.”

They also learned that traveling above the ozone layer magnified the bacteria specimen.

“The differences in temperature and the radiation actually gave the bacteria a boost,” Bennett said. “I actually thought it would have hindered its growth.”

Although most of the data was undetectable from the first launch, the students enjoyed having the opportunity for a second launch so they could make changes. They planned to make the payload lighter, include a fan from an old laptop computer to cool a camera and, of course, receive data on the second try.

“This time we should be able to get a lot more information,” Tracy said.

“The coding for this was a lot harder than I expected on the Arduino board. Being able to do this research is a million times more effective than reading it out of a textbook.”

Bennett said participating in the project has changed her career interest.

“Now, I’m more interested in environmental biology rather than medical biology,” she said.

Students interested in becoming part of the project can contact Tattersall at elizabeth.tattersall@wnc.edu, Herring at thomas.herring@wnc.edu or Kortemeier at winnie.kortemeier@wnc.edu.


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