In school, a hands-on activity can provide a valuable learning opportunity and a break from the usual routine. This is certainly the case for students at Scarborough Middle School, whose latest science experiment involved launching a high-altitude balloon.
On Monday, June 3, the students gathered on the field outside of the school. Throughout the past month they have been preparing for the launch, monitoring the changing weather and communicating with the Portland Jetport. The project gave them the chance to learn about space and the atmosphere.
Meredith Swartzendruber, an eighth-grade science teacher at the middle school, served as a leader in the project. She has a passion for the study of space and was eager to pass on some of her knowledge to her students.
One of the obstacles of the experiment was, of course, the weather. The launch was initially scheduled for April 30, but due to rain, it had to be moved. Fortunately, the students were able to reschedule just before the end of the school year.
“It’s been an unusual spring,” Swartzendruber said. “We needed an onshore breeze instead of an offshore breeze. Because if the balloon goes out to sea, we might not be getting it back.”
What made things even more challenging is that factors such as wind speed and direction will change depending on the altitude. So even if there is an onshore breeze at zero feet above sea level, this is not necessarily the case as the balloon goes higher.
The experiment was carried out in collaboration with the University of Maine’s High Altitude Ballooning (HAB) program.
With funding from the Maine Space Grant Consortium, the program has worked with K-12 classes across the state since 2011.
Dr. Richard Eason, a professor of electrical nd computer engineering and organizer of the HAB program, assisted with the launch. Every year he works with schools to have their own high-altitude experiment. With his extensive experience, he knew what to expect from the balloon.
“It will get up to 110,000 or 120,000 feet, going at about a thousand feet per minute,” Eason said on the day of the launch. “Then it will pop, and it will come down by parachute. It will be in the air for about two and a half hours.”
He added that they sometimes go to great lengths to chase down a balloon: “We’ve had them land in the tallest tree in the woods, or even in the water.” Just for this scenario, Eason carries an inflatable boat in his vehicle.
When the makeup day arrived, the weather was cooperating.
The balloon was readied, with the help of Eason and school faculty. The students counted down from 10, and their experiment was released.
The middle school’s balloon carried a GoPro camera and equipment for tracking speed and altitude. The data was transmitted to devices back on the ground, and the team’s predictions were not far off from the final results.
The balloon’s maximum altitude was 120,794 feet, and its flight time was 2 hours and 54 minutes.
It also traveled 128 miles and reached a maximum speed of 114 miles per hour.
Even with assistance from the HAB program, Swartzendruber’s eighth graders contributed plenty to the experiment themselves.
For the past month, they drafted scientific proposals and developed strategies for their own launch. By comparing data from the control group (a balloon they kept on the ground) to the experimental group (the balloon they released into the air), they could then see exactly how a higher altitude affects objects in flight.
Swartzendruber said this is an important time in the students’ lives, and the opportunity to take part in experiments like this will foster their interest in scientific studies.
“I am passionate about science education and think it’s important for students to gain hands-on experience, especially in middle school,” she said. “I want students to be inspired and excited about learning, and through these kinds of opportunities, students are engaged and conducting actual science.”
The eighth graders enjoyed tracking their balloon as it flew over familiar Scarborough landmarks.
Participating in this experiment has given the students valuable tools, which they may continue to use in future academic endeavors.

Students gathered outside on the field to watch as the balloon was released. According to teachers, the weather on June 3 was ideal for the experiment. (Meredith Swartzendruber photo)

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