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Our Great Annual Science Fair

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SUCCESS! Perkins student experimental balloon over the Salton Sea and the view from 90,000 feet

Hey kids, do you want to conduct experiments just like world-renowned scientists and head into outer space?

Well, at Perkins School you'll have these kinds of chances. We hold a Perkins Science Fair every year. And it's not just for select kids. In our school, everyone gets the opportunity to push the envelope of science.

Last year, our 8th graders divided into teams of four. Each team had three weeks to prepare for the science fair with help from Mr. Villalpando, our science teacher.

Principal Hernandez worked with one group on a very interesting experiment. Their goal was: Photograph the blackness of space and the curvature of the earth.

Their first lesson was to figure the answer to this problem. It's not like NASA was going to take a bunch of 13 year olds on a space mission.

In the end, Perkins students successfully recreated an experiment first conducted by MIT students. Their camera sent up tethered to a weather balloon took more than 1,200 pictures. The pictures were overwhelming to the students. They estimate that the balloon reached a height of a little over 91,000.

The students at first thought of a balloon. But what kind of balloon could rise that high, and carry a camera and how would they make the camera work remotely? They researched on the Internet looking at what other schools had tried successfully. During their research they found a website for MIT students. They copied the experiment themselves done by college students from one of the most advanced universities in the world, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Perkins students bought a $60 weather balloon, strapped on a a school camera that they altered ourselves with software available on the Internet and installed an "intervalometer" and programmed it to take seven pictures per minute. They rented a helium tank and used about 90 cubic feet of helium, and a a cheap $39 Motorola phone with GPS capabililty that they programmed to send a text message every three minutes with its GPS coordinates. The team monitored their balloon on http://www.accutracking.com/. They also purchased hand warmers to keep the camera and phone warm, and put it all in a $3 styrofoam cooler from Wal-Mart.

Among the key findings the students learned:

Temperature decreases significantly at elevation
payload to withstand fall and -60 below freezing temperatures
Tracking GPS phone using the web around the school and in the community
Calculating distance to horizon (feet x 1.5 then square root of answer gives you distance to horizon in miles.)
Principal Hernandez says the most important accomplishment was the affirmation of the famous words of the great leader Cesar Chavez: Si se puede.

Mr. Hernandez told his students that if MIT students can do it, so can they

Perkins students recovered their payload a week after launch. When they got a signal they took a trip back to the desert to track it down. A city worker found it and they were able to track it to his home. He was shocked that we were able to track it to his home in Westmorland near Brawley.

The entire school was thrilled with the pictures. The parents were amazed and kept asking "Our kids did that? How is that possible? That little camera took those pictures?"

The FAA permits this as long as the payload weighs less than four pounds. The Perkins team chose the desert because the possibility of this landing in somebody's backyard is very remote. There is a website that forecasts the balloon fight trajectory and they discovered their trajectory was close to target, off by 10 miles. Mr. Hernandez says will repeat this experiment at least two more times during the upcoming school year. Next time, they plan to take video.
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View from Perkins student experimental balloon of the Salton Sea. Below, students prepare and launch experiment in the desert.