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Launching young minds

Steamboat Springs Middle School sixth-graders build hot-air balloons in a lesson on heat transfer

Brent Boyer

It wasn’t quite Rainbow Weekend’s Balloon Rodeo, but the scene that unfolded at Steamboat Springs Middle School early last week certainly was reminiscent of the popular summer event.

More than 100 sixth-graders did their best to ignore bitter-cold temperatures Monday morning for the school’s third annual balloon launch.

Emblazoned with names such as Pink Panther, the Squish Squish and Pilgrim Snoopy, colorful balloons rose and fell back to the earth throughout the morning as the sixth-grade science classes culminated a unit on heat transfer, with a focus on conduction, convection and radiation.

Every sixth-grader spent several days the previous week constructing the balloons out of tissue paper and glue. Though the balloons were constructed using a standard design, the success of each launch greatly depended on the construction precision of each group of students, science teacher Matt Tredway said.

Excess glue will weigh down balloons and hinder flight elevation; too little glue could result in leaky balloons that won’t lift at all, Tredway said.

But more important than the success of balloon flights was enabling students to build something with their hands and minds that helped solidify the scientific processes at work in hot-air balloons, teachers said.

Student Sam Glaisher said the balloon activity helped him learn and understand some principles of science.

“When the hot air goes in (the balloon) it rises and lifts the balloon,” Glaisher said. “The heat rotates and recirculates. If it was just hot air and it didn’t recirculate, the balloon would just rise quickly and then fall.”

Using two propane grills, teachers held the balloons over the heat source until the air was warm enough to allow the balloons to rise. A modified protractor helped teachers and students approximate the height reached by each balloon. Some topped 300 feet, Tredway said.

“We had a lot of fun,” Tredway said of the unit and the balloon launch, which was attended by at least a dozen parents. “It’s something they can visualize, and it’s fun seeing them kind of amped up a little bit.”


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