Photo provided by Noblesville Schools
Third-graders from Mrs. Dunbar's class at Noble Crossing Elementary react to a balloon launch Tuesday morning at Hazel Dell Elementary School in Noblesville. The launch was part of a learning curriculum that aligns with science standards third-graders are studying about weather and flight.
Photo provided by Noblesville Schools Third-graders from Mrs. Dunbar's class at Noble Crossing Elementary react to a balloon launch Tuesday morning at Hazel Dell Elementary School in Noblesville. The launch was part of a learning curriculum that aligns with science standards third-graders are studying about weather and flight.

Noblesville High School teacher Andy Wilkins empowers his aerospace students by providing them opportunities to create, invent, discover, challenge and take risks. 

The vocal ambassador and leader for all Project Lead the Way STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum at NHS -- where he teaches engineering and math -- is also well known for his “famous” balloon launch. 

His latest endeavor is sending into space for the first time, more than 400 inspirational messages, names of loved ones, and hopes for the future from Noblesville third-graders.

The project is “part of a high-altitude aerospace balloon launch partnership” with NHS and this school year received funding from a Noblesville Education Foundation grant.

Elementary students -- including third-graders from Promise Road, Noble Crossing and Hazel Dell elementaries, plus a couple of fifth-grade classes from Riverside Intermediate School in Fishers -- sat watching a big white balloon being filled with helium just minutes before the launch on Tuesday morning behind Hazel Dell Elementary. 

“Five-four-three-two-one.” The students counted down as they watched the balloon ascend high into the sky. 

“The kids absolutely love it,” Wilkins said “They like being a part of something that feels a little bigger than themselves.”

The 1,200-gram balloon started off between 6 to 8 feet in diameter. “When it gets up into almost bursting, it will be more like 16 to 20 feet wide. All of the pressure inside is trying to get out, and there’s not as much pressure outside of it anymore,” said Wilkins, just after the launch, as he was cleaning up the site, readying for a road trip to find the balloon.  

“The main reason I do it is because I want students to still be interested in science all the way through their lives,” said Wilkins, who hopes his students investigate and want to learn more.

“This is a pretty authentic experience because you have something that’s going up in the atmosphere. We can kind of predict where it’s going to go, but we really have no idea what’s going to happen to the experiment. So it’s a true scientific method for students … You don’t get that very often. Usually, they have contrived experiments….”

“That’s one of the reasons I do it,” he said.

Students and teachers returned to their classes on Tuesday and followed the balloon’s journey on a website, tracking the balloon and comparing their predictions, based on the wind. The diagnostics on the balloon measured temperature, pressure, humidity, ascent, speed and spin rate.

The balloon was predicted to travel southeast, as far as Dayton, Ohio, where it would, hopefully, descend to the ground, rather than land in a tree or someplace obscure.

“There’s never been a time we couldn’t find it.” But, he said, “There was a time when it landed up really high in a tree and had to get an arborist to get it.”

While the balloon usually lands just over the Ohio border, one time, the balloon landed east of Cincinnati and another time, as close as Markleville, Ind., in adjacent Madison County.

This school year, all Noblesville third-graders are participating in the weather balloon-launch study thanks to Wilkins writing and receiving a $4,400 Noblesville Education Foundation grant. 

“It’s so that I could do this with every elementary school at some point this year, and next year, and the following years,” said Wilkins, who in November did a balloon launch for White River and North elementaries, and who will do another launch in May with Hinkle and Stony Creek elementary students. 

“The grant paid for the device (with global positioning system) that sends the information from a satellite back down to us so we can record the data, so we know where it is, and track it,” Wilkins said.

“The new equipment does real-time data,” which is often used for navigation or tracking, he said. “So anyone in the world who has a link to the web page can view the data live. And so that’s why I really like this. So all of the kids are going to go back to their classrooms, and they can watch what’s happening to the balloon.”

“My hope is that, eventually, as each elementary school has enough people to know how to do it, that they can do it themselves, and can do it on their timetable,” he said.

Each participating student had the opportunity to pen a message on a piece of paper that was put inside a plastic bag, for each school, for extra protection, and then placed in a box that also holds three cameras, one facing horizon, one facing down and one facing up, and attached to the balloon.

It’s the first time that messages have been included with the balloon.

“I’m using this, mainly, as a teaching tool for the teachers that will eventually be doing this experiment,” he said.

This is Wilkins’ 14th year teaching at Noblesville Schools and his sixth year to do the balloon launch, which he initially started with his NHS aerospace engineering class, who helped design the experiment this school year and who will be at the third launch in May.

“This is kind of unique that he’s brought it down here for the third-graders to study,” said Marnie Cooke, the district’s spokesperson, who snapped photos at the launch. 

The balloon was expected to rise 90,000 feet into the atmosphere, “so it will be considered going into space, technically,” she said.

The balloon-launch study is connected with elementary students’ learning curriculum that aligns with science standards third-graders are studying about weather and flight. 

Cooke said, “Thanks to satellite and internet technology, launch data will be reported in real time so that students, teachers, parents, friends, hobbyists, and others can join in the learning experience.” To follow the balloon or view results visit: tracking.stratostar.net/mission/0295.

Wilkins, who in 2016 was named one of four Innovative Teachers of the Year at Noblesville Schools and the only teacher to represent NHS. The teachers were nominated by their peers and were then selected for the honor by a committee of teachers and administrators. As a winner, he received a laser engraved award made by Noblesville High School students and a $250 professional development grant, and his name was to be engraved on a plaque displayed at the district administrative headquarters. 

-Contact Betsy Reason at betsy@thetimes24-7.com