STEM Program Reaches New Heights from Graham Municipal Airport

Category: Engineering

Written By: Nicole McBride

Date: January 4, 2023

STEM Program Reaches New Heights from Graham Municipal Airport cover image

A weather balloon launch was the first community event at Graham Municipal Airport following airport improvements projects designed by Parkhill’s Aviation Division. The launch and retrieval of the high-altitude balloon were organized by the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Program (STEM) at Open Door Christian School, a local K-12 school in Graham, Texas.

Through the airport improvements project and the Airport Manager Jon Delamarter’s relationship with the school’s affiliated church, Parkhill connected with the students and STEM Coordinator Claire Meschkat to see their project soar. Claire uses her experience working with the NASA space shuttle program to show how balloons can gather weather data before a shuttle launch to predict a correct trajectory for the spacecraft. 

“When I share my past experiences with NASA with the students, they see the value of their education and with their weather balloon experience can envision themselves in a future STEM career,” Claire said.

Weather balloons are launched twice each day from 900 locations around the world. Meteorologists use these balloons to measure and predict weather patterns. For this recent launch, ODCS students in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades were divided into teams that focused on a specific part of the project. The teams included mission control, mission specialists, payload specialists, media specialists, and the recovery team.

Each team spent months learning about the technology and hardware associated with their component and the related science behind sending the payload, or the tools necessary for collecting data, to the edge of space. The payload consists of scientific instruments that measure temperature, pressure, and humidity, two GoPro cameras to capture footage of balloons’ trips, and a container of two onboard science experiments. 

“The first time we did this project was about two years ago, and we sent up a raw chicken egg and recorded a video of the egg exploding and then freezing against a backdrop of the curvature of the earth at 83,000 feet above the earth’s surface,” Claire said. “This year, the ODCS student body voted to send up a packet of pop rocks that were exposed to the atmospheric elements and a rubber bouncy ball whose elasticity was compared to a duplicate ball remaining on the ground.”

The high-altitude balloons are filled with helium to a diameter of about 6 feet. This helps lift the payload into the air. As the balloons ascend, the decrease in pressure causes them to expand to 30 feet in diameter. Once the balloons burst, a parachute opens to provide a safe descent and landing. 

Trackers on the ODCS payload continuously sent location data to the students and the recovery team led by the school’s STEM teacher, Laci Nelle, so they could follow the trail to make the recovery. Claire said the maximum altitude was recorded at 65,000 feet, and the payload landed in the back of a pickup truck parked in a residential driveway in Keller, Texas. 

Michael Krusing, PE, project manager from Parkhill, believes these hands-on learning experiences are great for educating young people on the benefits of STEM programs and can create positive “lasting memories.”  

“I still remember little things from when I was growing up and being able to help an event that creates those memories for kids was a privilege,” he said. “Even if half or a third of the 25 kids in the program really do follow through in a STEM career, that’s still 8 to 12 kids from a small town like Graham of 8,500 people that could enter into STEM and benefit our industries. I love to be able to help facilitate those little things with the little bit that we could.”

This is the first year Parkhill was designated as a title sponsor for this community event. Aviation Director Mark Haberer, PE; Ryan Kennerly, PE; and Director of K-12 Education David Finley, AIA; were also involved in the sponsorship. Ryan has been involved in Water Resources projects for the City of Graham, and David has been dedicated to bettering education for over 30 years.

“As the City of Graham grows, I hope that our impact in the community does as well … not only at the airport but with Water Resources and possibly other avenues,” Michael said. “Being able to be there with Graham, build community from the beginning, and not only help them out on their projects but help them out with the schools would be something that would be very fulfilling throughout our career.” 

Through “time, talents, and sponsorship,” Michael said he hopes to continue to be involved in community events with ODSC. Learning experiences, such as this weather balloon project conducted at the airport, can create more opportunities to work with the students through STEM.

Claire believes the success of this project will leave a lasting impression on everyone involved. “We were very blessed this year to have Parkhill sponsor this project and provide a greater opportunity for our students to learn and grow through this experience as well as share it with the community.”