Using High-Altitude Ballooning to Give Freshmen a Hands-on Introduction to the "Space" Side of Aerospace

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It is challenging to provide undergraduate students with meaningful, hands-on activities on the "space" side of aerospace due to the complexity of spacecraft and the tremendous expense of launching them into outer space using rockets. Helium-filled (or hydrogen-filled) latex weather balloons, also called high-altitude balloons, can carry miniature spacecraft designed and built by students to altitudes in excess of 80,000 feet into the stratosphere. The view and environmental conditions in this part of the atmosphere are quite similar to outer space, so these balloons are said to travel to "near-space." Student participation in the entire near-space mission, including the launch, tracking the balloon using GPS-enabled radios, and post-flight data analysis, makes high-altitude ballooning an engaging, yet relatively inexpensive, microcosm of full-scale spaceflight programs that is well-suited for undergraduate education. The Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics (AEM) Department at the University of MN - Twin Cities / Minneapolis campus (henceforth just called the U of MN), in conjunction with NASA's Minnesota Space Grant Consortium (MnSGC), has developed a freshman seminar entitled Spaceflight with Ballooning and offered it four times since 2008. This no-prerequisites class is part of a suite of curricular and extracurricular aerospace activities offered by the MnSGC to complement the AEM undergraduate program. Students in the class of about 20 work in teams of 4 or 5 to design, build, and test a robust near-spacecraft to take photos or video and to use sensors to collect basic atmospheric data which is saved on HOBO data loggers and on miniature flight computers which the students solder together and help program. Each team must also perform one unique student-generated science experiment, built within weight and cost budgetary constraints. Over the course of the semester student teams do a series of three oral design reviews and submit three revisions of a written report, to document their payload. The final oral presentation and report submission are due after the balloon mission has flown and emphasize data analysis. The course also includes mini-lectures on full-fledged outer space flight, plus explicit time for discussion about what it means to be a freshman and how to thrive in college. This paper will discuss the results from the four times this seminar has been offered, including both the joys and the challenges of doing genuine aerospace design/build work with freshman, all of whom are interested but some of whom have limited science and math backgrounds. It will also describe how this class fits into a larger suite of high-altitude ballooning activities, for a wider range of ages, as well as a broader set of aerospace freshman seminar offerings, to engage students in aerospace engineering build activities without necessarily waiting for completion of calculus and physics prerequisites. Such classes can motivate interested students to stick with the program, despite early non-aerospace class hurdles. They can also engage and capture the imagination of students who were not considering majoring in aerospace-related engineering or science fields.

Original languageEnglish (US)
StatePublished - Sep 24 2013
Event120th ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition - Atlanta, GA, United States
Duration: Jun 23 2013Jun 26 2013


Other120th ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition
Country/TerritoryUnited States
CityAtlanta, GA


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