The Atmosphere as Laboratory

Armed with a weather balloon, cameras, and weeks of preparation in scientific theory, atmospheric thermodynamics students literally explored the atmosphere.

Using a weather balloon gives students in Jill Coleman’s classes a distinct opportunity for research and exploration.

“Students can grow accustomed to relying on computers to calculate data for them. When they get out into the workforce, they will need to have these skills,” says Coleman, assistant professor of geography.


  Students secure the camera 
  to the weather balloon.

The equipment on the balloon gathers data on the temperature, humidity, pressure, wind speed, and the balloon’s height.

“We took the pod, which was a small box, and put the video camera in there,” says meteorology student Mandy Ward, MS nursing 2009. “The camera needed to be in the box so moisture couldn’t get in. There was a hole that the lens could look through. We strapped it in and tied the pods together. Then we launched it.”

As researchers tracked and followed the balloon on the ground by car, they downloaded the data relevant to their research.


 Students prepare the weather
 balloon to launch. It traveled up to 100,000 feet high and
 landed in Ohio.

“We were taking the theory out of the classroom and getting hands-on out in the field,” says meteorology student Korey Klein, BS geography 2011. “We were amazed that it got up to 100,000 feet into the atmosphere. Then seeing the video footage of the descent and the burst, you could hear the balloon burst, and watch the freefall.”
The balloon landed in the middle of a 2-mile by 2-mile cornfield just over the border in Ohio. This successful launch supplied Coleman’s class with plenty of data, some of which they spent the rest of the semester processing, as well as clear video and pictures taken from the camera the balloon carried.

Coleman decided to implement atmospheric balloon launches in her classes after participating in a Taylor University program funded by the National Science Foundation. After experiencing a successful collaborative launch, Coleman decided she wanted to make this opportunity available to more students at Ball State. She applied for and received a grant from the Discovery Group to help fund this endeavor.


 Photograph from the weather balloon in

“You can only learn so much from a textbook,” says meteorology student Ben Esterline. “Actually, getting outside and using the atmosphere as your laboratory is a unique and very fun experience.”

Watch a student-made video of their experiences.

An auspicious follow-on joint effort by Ball State and Taylor University has been funded by the National Science Foundation. The Ball State contribution to the project is under the direction of Melissa Mitchell of the Department of Biology and involves colleagues Sheryl Stump and Kay Roebuck of the Department of Mathematical Sciences, together with the advising of Jill Colemen. Implementation of high altitude ballooning into undergraduate education classes (future K-12 teachers) is underway. Students in science and mathematics methods classes will produce 7th and 8th grade science and math lessons at Ball State and 6th grade lessons at Taylor. The undergraduate science and math students will hear about high altitude research platform systems and the design of appropriate experiments for elementary and secondary school students; they will learn about the accompanying launch, retrieval, and data analysis; Ball State students will participate in curricular field testing in Burris Laboratory School classrooms so that they will understand what goes into appropriate lesson planning in experiments and data analysis for kids.

Students preparing to be teachers will emerge from their high altitude balloon experience better prepared to lead their future students in addressing basic questions about the Earth’s atmosphere and the life that it supports. The sky is the limit for learning for future elementary and middle school students in their charge.