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Exploring Space Through A Ping Pong Ball

April 8th, 2013 by

Years ago my students sent several dozen styrofoam cups they decorated into ‘inner’ space aboard a submarine. The sub descended into the Mariana Trench  and exposed the cups to the extreme pressures beneath the sea. Toward the end of the year, the cups were returned to us, and it was quite impressive to see the size large foam turned into tiny, brittle mini cups with strangely distorted artistry from the students. To this day, former students tell me this simple ‘experiment’ was one of the most memorable experiences for them in school. While not a true science experiment, it was the beginnings of field testing ideas outside the classroom for us.

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The time has come to move your student experiments from the classroom into outer space. With the advent of inexpensive electronics that can monitor everything from ambient temperature to magnetic fields, it is possible to conduct real science outside the confines of earth’s atmosphere. The most practical method to reach the ‘outer limits’ is to use a weather balloon that lofts the experimental payload into the stratospshere. Doing this in an advanced level course is an excellent STEM project that can take the entire year to complete. It involves students in everything from obtaining permits from the FAA to release the balloon to calculating trajectories, forecasting weather and using telemetry. This is a project in and of itself, and creating the on board science experiments is another layer of challenges to complete.

For those teachers who are not able to devote the time or resources to conduct the launch themselves, there is an alternative known as the PongSat from JP Aerospace. Billing itself as “America’s Other Space Program’, the organization is focused on DIY space exploration. Regular launches allow for teachers to get on a list to get their student’s experiments on board.  Best of all, it’s free! What sorts of experiments fit in a ping pong ball? Some ideas include:

-sending seeds to determine the effect of space on germination and growth

-measuring atmospheric changes with altitude

-measuring charge output of a photovoltaic cell in space

-magnetic field changes

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The sky’s the limit with what can be done within the confines of a ping pong ball.  Whether your students send up a  packet of seeds or an arduino nano with a sophisticated array of sensors, real science and engineering can be done for very little costs other than time. And since spending time doing STEM is the way to get students engaged, getting on board the next available mission to space is worth the wait.

 

 

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