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Weather-balloon program promotes science learning

Members of Dakota County 4-H build payload boxes. The boxes were sent into the atmosphere with a weather balloon. The boxes collected various data.

Jacob Grunklee likes science and he's good at it. So when the chance to be part of a science experiment came through 4-H the Rosemount eighth grader jumped at the opportunity.

In all eleven Dakota County 4-H members participated in a near-space ballooning program over two weekends in mid-October. The members launched a latex weather balloon from Gaylord, Minn. Oct. 15. The members will gather one more time to see the results of data collected as part of their experiment.

Through the program, which was funded by the Minnesota Space Grant, the students launched a latex weather balloon carrying four payload boxes to measure data. The balloon ascended to 89,000 feet above sea level before it burst and began its descent back to Earth. To put that in perspective, that is about 2 1/2 times higher than commercial jets fly.

Erick Agrimson, a St. Catherine University professor, led the program. He said the balloons can travel as high as 100,000 feet. Throughout its trip up and down the payload boxes carried by the balloon collected data including temperature, radiation levels and wind speed. They also took lots of pictures.

The 4-H members constructed the payload boxes the weekend before the launch. Grunklee, who didn't get to attend the launch, said he enjoyed putting the payloads together and tinkering with the various devices.

"Seeing all the pieces and putting it together was fun," said Grunklee.

While each box contained different equipment, all four carried cameras and heaters. Agrimson said the temperature can get very cold in the upper layers of the atmosphere so to protect the equipment they install heaters.

On the day of the launch the 4-H members helped inflate the balloon, which is six feet diameter. When the balloon was launched they watched it rise into the sky and then jumped into a van to track the balloon and see what information they would get.

As the balloon ascended the atmosphere thinned and the balloon expanded until it burst. After the burst the payload fell back through the upper atmosphere. A parachute slowed the descent. By time the payload landed it was travelling about 15 miles per hour.

For 4-H member Eric Boehlke, following the balloon was his favorite part.

"I liked when we got in the car and tracked the balloon," said Boehlke.

Boehlke participates in 4-H's aerospace program and said in general he likes science.

"I think I would like to do something in science," Boehlke said.

Fostering interest in science is a reason the program was offered. Agrimson has done a number of these launches and said it's a great opportunity for kids to learn about meteorology. He added that in general it's a good way to get kids interested in science.

"It gives them hands on experience with what scientists do," said Agrimson.

For 4-H leader Kathy Johnson the program was a good way for 4-H to expose a handful of kids to a unique experience.

"It was so cool to see 4-H take on something like this," said Johnson.

The 4-H members who participated were from all around the county including Rosemount, Farmington, Hastings, Randolph and Eagan.

Emily Zimmer
Emily Zimmer has worked as a staff writer for the Rosemount Town Pages since 2007. She has a degree in journalism from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Outside of work, Emily enjoys running, reading and gardening. You can follow Emily's gardening adventures at the Areavoices blog East of Weedin'
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