For the sixth year, West Ranch students launch weather balloon into stratosphere

The West Ranch High School Astronomy weather balloon carrying a payload of science experiments lifts off from West Ranch High School on it's 50 mile flight to reach an altitude of 93,000 feet on Thursday. Dan Watson/The Signal
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Honors astronomy students at West Ranch High School watched their high-altitude weather balloon reach far up into the sky following its launch on campus Thursday.

The launch took place at the West Ranch amphitheater, as hundreds of students on their lunch break, along with a few parents and school officials including Principal Mark Crawford, watched the team prepare the launch and cheered once astronomy students had lift-off.

For the sixth year in a row, 50 students from two of Christine Hirst’s honors astronomy classes worked together on a project to launch this type of balloon into the stratosphere, reaching close to 95,000 feet altitude. Once the balloon returns to Earth, the students can then observe the results of the nine experiments lifted up with the balloon and see how they were affected by the vacuum of space.

“(Hirst) really likes doing these big projects, especially exposing us to more realistic science kind of things, instead of doing things right inside the classroom,” said Isabel Zheng, student and media team co-leader for the project. “She’s refined and defined the whole entire process many times since it’s been six years. Hopefully, this isn’t the last one, but here it is.”

The team was split based on four aspects to the launch – including the launch itself, the payload, the recon team and media. Though it could reach 95,000 feet into the stratosphere, the recon team expected the balloon to burst at 80,000 feet and land about 50 miles east of the school within three hours since it launched. The recon team will use a GPS tracker to locate the balloon as it makes its descent.  

Amer Attar, center and West Ranch High School Astronomy Students inflate their weather balloon in preparation to launch a payload of science experiments in the West Ranch High School amphitheater on Thursday. Dan Watson/The Signal

In the time since Hirst received a grant from the state to be able to conduct these experiments, she’s allowed her students to work independently from her and as a team in order to perfect their chances for a successful launch.

“We have to figure out things on our own, especially as the world is aging and technology is changing,” said Chika Ma, student and media team co-leader. “We have to be able to do things ourselves, so this is especially crucial. She doesn’t do this just for us to have fun, she really wanted to teach us something, learn how to work in a group, learn how to communicate with one another.”

Besides the grant and the relationships built within the team, Hirst said the class’ status as an honors course has also changed students’ incentive to participate.

“Recruiting students is different when you work at a very high-level school because students really want their traditional set of classes, your GPA-boosting classes,” she said. “That’s what’s really important to them, so now that it’s an honors class, that makes it a lot easier to sell. It’s convincing a lot of students, (who) really love a grade, that it’s about an experience.”

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