Passing the scientific torch: Five Colleges researchers share love of profession

  • Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Rhode Island and the Atlantic Ocean, as seen from a high-altitude balloon that Amherst middle school students Siddu Sitaraman, Keating Shahmehri, Rohan Shenoy and Sammy Conrad-Rooney launched some 90,000 feet into the air on July 16. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • From left, Amherst middle schoolers Sammy Conrad-Rooney, Keating Shahmehri, Siddu Sitaraman and Rohan Shenoy prepare to launch their high-altitude balloon on July 16. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Monday, August 07, 2017

AMHERST — In the middle of their summer break, Sammy Conrad-Rooney and his friends showed up to the University of Massachusetts athletic fields at 6 a.m. to conduct a science experiment of ambitious proportions: launching a balloon, camera and other equipment into the upper atmosphere to take photos and record data.

The results were stunning for the students, their teacher and mentors. The balloon traveled into the literal stratosphere by reaching an altitude of approximately 90,000 feet, all the while taking video of its ascent and logging temperature, altitude and humidity every 10 seconds.

“I was completely incredibly impressed with the entire thing,” eighth-grade science teacher Jennifer Welborn, who leads the students’ science club, said. “There was no practice on this, there was no test launch. They just did it and it succeeded. It was amazing.” 

Conrad-Rooney, Siddu Sitaraman, Keating Shahmehri and Rohan Shenoy designed their project as part of their Amherst Regional Middle School science club led by Welborn and modeled on UMass Amherst’s Integrated Concentration in Science program, in which students use a multidisciplinary approach to solve real-world problems. 

The success of many of the club’s projects comes from what Welborn thinks is an often untapped resource: participation of local scientists eager to pass the scientific torch — or, perhaps a better metaphor, the Bunsen burner — onto a new generation scientists-to-be. In the case of the high-altitude balloon, it was UMass Amherst scientists who provided essential guidance.

“I always felt like the best way to get kids into science is in the middle school level,” said UMass chemistry professor D. Venkataraman, who served as what he likes to call a “guide on the side” helping the students complete the project. “I got into chemistry when I was in eighth grade.”

Local university scientists, of course, have a strong presence in local schools and communities, from Smith College students volunteering at state expos for middle school girls interested in STEM to Mount Holyoke professors teaching restorative ecology to high schoolers in Springfield. 

“One of the reasons that we think it is important to reach out to local students here is that Mount Holyoke is a resource that they have here,” said Julianne Busa, the program coordinator for Mount Holyoke College’s restoration ecology program.

Through a summer scholars program, Mount Holyoke also seeks to introduce high school girls to the growing field of restorative ecology, which Busa said will only become an even more important discipline as ecological crises — think deteriorating water quality and pollution — become more dire.

“In terms of the sort of timeline that’s looming upon us, ecology is really critical to solve problems where there’s really no coming back,” Busa said. The idea is for local scientists to show students that ecology isn’t all doom and gloom, she added, but that there are actually solutions to the problems young people will face in an uncertain future. 

An untapped source

Despite the prevalence of such initiatives, however, Welborn said local science teachers should look more to reach out to the plentiful local scientists in the area.

“As soon as I reach out, there’s more than enough people that are willing to help,” she said. “It’s an untapped source for everybody.”

Scientists can have a tremendous impact on young students by working with them doing hands-on learning, Welborn said. After all, she became a middle school science teacher because of her own middle school teacher, who in the 1970s would take large classes of students out to do field studies. 

“He must have been such a rebel to do that — to get 30 kids out, and to get them all muddy,” she recalled. After those hands-on experiences, she said she immediately thought, “I want to work in the field, and I want to be a scientist.”

“I don’t think teachers think enough about asking people in the community to come in and help,” Welborn said. “I think sometimes teachers’ egos get in the way.”

Venkataraman said he, too, had an academic mentor who fueled his zeal for science when he was a young and impressionable student growing up in Chennai, India. 

“My middle school chemistry teacher was an example,” he said. During summertime, she let him into the school lab and gave him ideas about experiments he could do. “She allowed me to do whatever I wanted in her lab.”

Hands-on experiments

Unlike a pedagogy focused on textbook learning, Venkataraman said it is those real-life experiences with science, answering actual questions, that motivate students to inquire further and pose more questions.

“I just couldn’t think of teaching any other way,” Welborn said, laughing.

That method of teaching clearly motivated the high-altitude balloon team, which went to great lengths both to get the project off the ground and to eventually recover the balloon.

Much of the equipment for the experiment, including the helium to launch the balloon, was bought after the four students raised $450 through a crowdfunding effort. 

Next, the students calculated exactly how much helium they would need to get their balloon to the desired height, 100,000 feet. They used an online predictor to guess where the balloon’s parachute might land after it popped, plugging in variables like the balloon’s height, how fast it would fall, the day, time and location of the launch. And then, they let go.

“You could see it for 10 or 15 minutes,” Conrad-Rooney said. “And we could track where it was on the phone.”

That’s because the group had attached a transmitter that used satellites to send the balloon’s coordinates down to earth every few minutes. Once the balloon got high enough, however, the sensor most likely froze and they were no longer getting updates.

So with parents driving, the group traveled to around where their predictions suggested the balloon’s payload might land after the balloon popped. They then parked and waited until the location updates started to come back in. To their surprise and delight, the parachute was keeping very close to the predicted route.

That route brought them all the way out to the eastern town of Acton — far closer to Boston than to anywhere in the Pioneer Valley. There, in the Grassy Pond Conservation Area, the transmitter started sending the same location over and over again — right in the middle of a pond.

“It was pretty amazing, just seeing something that had gone so high,” said Conrad-Rooney, who is entering ninth grade this fall. “And there were so many places it could land, but it landed in a place we could find it.”

The students luckily came prepared — they brought with them a ladder and a long pole in case it landed in a tree. And, in an incredibly prescient move, they had a kayak with them. Conrad-Rooney’s older sister took the boat down a narrow creek into the pond and recovered the balloon.

“We were walking really fast down that trail!” Conrad-Rooney said of their reaction after getting their equipment back. The part they were looking forward to the most? Watching the video the camera had taken.

The results were breathtaking: high-altitude images of locations like the Quabbin Reservoir, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and the Atlantic Ocean. (The video, photos and other information can be found on a website the students created at https://sites.google.com/view/armshab)

“You could see Cape Cod and Rhode Island and all these different places,” Conrad-Rooney said. “It was so amazing.”

He said he hopes to become more involved with science in the future, and that projects like this have only motivated him further. Lots of that, he said, came from the participation of UMass scientists.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do it without him,” he said of Venkataraman, who also connected the students with UMass physics professor Heath Hatch, who had run a similar experiment himself with a class and provided valuable insight.

“I really want to go into science, and this project really helped me,” Conrad-Rooney said. “It was a big learning experience.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.