Larrea Cottingham’s sixth-grade class at the Moab Charter School. [Courtesy photo]

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On April 14, a class of sixth-graders at the Moab Charter School launched a high-altitude weather balloon into the skies over Moab.

“We watched it until we couldn’t see it anymore. We estimate we lost view of it when the balloon reached over 20,000 ft,” said teacher Larrea Cottingham.

The balloon soared over 90,000 feet into the stratosphere. A flight recorder placed on the balloon by students revealed dramatic video footage of the earth from above and collected data on the atmosphere’s temperature, altitude, barometric pressure, and location.

“I wasn’t expecting the balloon to go so high,” said student Desmond Howard, “It was so epic!”

The ambitious school project was a hit with students, who raised funds for the experiment through individual donations and a successful class fundraiser on Valentine’s Day. Cottingham also applied for and received a grant from the Grand County Education Fund.

“We are so grateful for their support. This project could not be possible without the Grand Country Education Fund,” said Cottingham. “They not only accepted the grant proposal to fund this year’s project but also provided the additional funds needed to purchase extra balloons so this project can take place in the future.”

Cottingham said that the balloon project is an example of experiential learning, a theory of education that emphasizes learning by doing. Experiential learning projects focus on not just learning abstract concepts, but by giving students an opportunity to see those concepts in action.

“For this project, students not only helped raise the funds to purchase the necessary equipment, but they also worked in teams to understand the science behind the balloon launch and to design two experiments to send up into the stratosphere,” said Cottingham. “They built the payload, learned how to use the flight computer and GoPro camera, selected the launch site using predictive modeling, and attached all instruments to the payload.”

The deflated balloon was recovered close to I-70 near Cisco and brought back to the classroom. Students are currently working on drawing conclusions about their experiments and analyzing the data recovered from the flight computer, said Cottingham. The class is planning on presenting its findings as well as the near-space video footage to the rest of the class. The presentation will also be posted on the Moab Charter School Facebook page for community members to enjoy.

“The entire process of science was experienced through this weather balloon project,” said School Director Carrie Ann Smith. “Our sixth-grade class not only got to study, set up, and release the balloon, they are now sharing their learning with all the other students of MCS.”

“I’m really proud of these sixth-graders,” says Cottingham. “Through this project, they learned how to work together in a team to achieve a goal with real-world applications and consequences. This project also helped them learn how to take responsibility for their work and see how doing so really pays off.”