Scientist gives 5th-graders a lesson about how weather balloons work
February 7, 2010
Steamboat Springs — When Colin Musselman woke up Wednesday, the Soda Creek Elementary School fifth-grader had no idea he would help launch a weather balloon.
Colin even had forgotten about his class field trip to learn how weather balloons work from Storm Peak Laboratory Director Gannet Hallar.
"I had a really good time," Colin said. "And I liked letting go of the balloon and watching it go really, really high."
Colin and the rest of Cindy Gantick's class were one of four Soda Creek fifth grade classes to get the demonstration near Yampa Valley Medical Center last week from Hallar, who runs the lab at the summit of Mount Werner. South Routt students got the demonstration last month, and Hayden is scheduled for the lesson this week.
The students learned the five things that the weather balloons measure: temperature, pressure, wind direction, wind speed and humidity.
"The weather balloons, they collect data for the weather people," fifth-grader Mackenzie Ward explained. "They go higher than Storm Peak Lab, and that's pretty high."
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Before launching the balloon, Hallar, with help from Kate Young, associate scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, explained how it worked.
They told the students that the balloons could travel as high as 80,000 feet in the air — where they eventually expand to the size of the students' bedrooms — and as far as 150 miles. A small device connected to the balloon, called a radiosonde, collects the data and sends it back to a computer where it can be analyzed, they said.
Young told the students that the NCAR launches 500 to 1,000 weather balloons each year depending on its research. She said the National Weather Service launches two a day from 1,000 stations across the United States.
Hallar said launching weather balloons would help Storm Peak Lab research how pollution changes snowflake formation.
After the explanation and a quiz to see if the students remembered the five things measured by the weather balloon, Young began filling one with helium. A few students,
including Colin, were asked to hold on until it was ready to be launched.
Everyone began counting down from 10. When they reached one, the students let go of the balloon, and it shot upward. Students laughed as they looked up, until the balloon was just a speck in the sky.
"You can see it disappear and know it's going to go so high and so far," fifth-grader Jessica Colombo said.
Fifth-grader Tasha Getten added, "It was a really cool experience to see this, and they do it around the world."
Gantick said her classes do something annually with Hallar and Storm Peak Lab. She said Wednesday's demonstration was an introduction to a unit about weather that the students will study this spring. Gantick said the lab is an incredible resource for local students.
She said it was important to capitalize on that resource to make science meaningful for her students. She said, without a doubt, her students wouldn't forget the experience.
Hallar said it's her goal to get students excited about science by showing them hands-on demonstrations and experiments. And, Hallar said, she wants to show students that science is cool.
"It's the right age before they think science is dorky," she said.
That message got through to Mackenzie.
"I learned that scientists have an awesome job," she said.