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The Birth of The Firebird Space Program

Brooks Park
Mission Principles: Compelling and Connected Academic Program, Connection to Local and Global Communities, Integration of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics, Pursuit of the Balance of Rigor and Joy 
“It was not about gifted kids, or clever teaching, or curriculum that should be marketed. There was a spirit, an ethic in the air that day. It was partly about the kids, the teaching, the curriculum, the school conditions, the community, but importantly, it was about all of these things at once. It transcended these things. It was the culture of the school that encouraged these kids to volunteer, to work together, and to care deeply about the quality of what they did.”
from An Ethic of Excellence, Ron Berger

This quote captures the essence of my feelings about the experience of our first 8th-grade Conceptual Physics near space balloon launches this past Spring. The following is a reflection on those launches, the preparation required to make them a reality as well as some of the lessons learned from the experience.

One of the things that I am most grateful for about teaching at Pacific Ridge is the institutionalized culture of continual improvement and striving for excellence. In exercising that habit, teachers on the 8th-grade Conceptual Physics teaching team sequestered themselves for a day in the spring of 2015 to make plans for the 2015-16 school year. We had been encouraged by leadership to think big, to add more project-based learning, and to as always look at ways to make our program even more impactful for students. From the outset, we were secure in knowing that if we developed a compelling plan, we would receive support from the school to carry it out. In short, there is more blue tape than red tape for new ideas at Pacific Ridge.

As we brainstormed ideas for projects that would capture the imagination and enthusiasm of students while serving as a rich learning experience in Conceptual Physics, the idea of near space balloons came up. We immediately started to see multiple points of integration to our current curriculum, as well as area for growth and open-ended exploration by the students. From that point on, intrinsically driven by the wonder and potential of the project, the planning continued through the fall and early winter. We consulted with private companies and engineering students at UC San Diego, made a list and acquired materials, reached out to local companies for donated supplies, consulted with government agencies, and worked together on curriculum. We then announced the project to students right before winter break, and the reaction was even better than we had expected.

Once underway, the students took to their roles and truly owned the project. This is the mark of a compelling project - it does not require “motivation” on the part of the teacher. Rather, it takes on a life of its own with students. Instead of me setting the agenda for the day and asking students questions, students were making plans, running their ideas by each other, and asking me for help when needed. The teacher assumes the role of the consultant rather than the expert. The transformation in certain students was remarkable and how wonderful to watch them really bloom when given this opportunity.

We showed students how to use a tool (such as the hot wire foam cutter) and then they used the tool to create a space capsule of their own design. Experiments were designed, social media was utilized to foster communication with the greater PRS community, computer models were consulted to optimize recovery, and cameras and equipment were tested. More than once I had to ask myself how much I should intervene in the process if I had a hunch something wouldn’t work out. Seeing how things turned out, I should not have been so concerned. If students are not trusted to take appropriate academic risks, and given the opportunity to fail in a supportive environment, they will be less ready for the world of college and career.

Launch day was a great experience, with our two balloons reaching heights of up to 102,000 feet and traveling as far as 100 miles. Still photos were retrieved showing stunning images of the earth’s surface and the exact moment the balloons exploded. Families followed the balloons’ progress via GPS monitors and our stalwart launch crew kept spirits high through the 12-hour day. Once the payloads landed, students slogged through farm fields to retrieve them and examine the space-traveling objects they had placed on board.

Ultimately the near-space balloon launch experience is one that I believe will endure in the memories of our students. I know for me, this project has been a rewarding transformative  collaborative professional development opportunity. It was inspiring, occasionally messy, educationally rich, unpredictable, somewhat risky, but always exhilarating. Just as the race to put an astronaut on the moon stimulated technology and birthed a reform in science education in the fifties and sixties, our first steps into near-space have inspired us to do more real-world investigation, to re-evaluate our benchmark experiences for the course, and redefined our perceived limits. A compelling project like this pays educational dividends before, during and after the fact.