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Sometimes NASA Is Just the Beginning of the Journey
Four girls stand in front of a weather balloon

Students from Charlottesville High School benefited from preparing for this competition and then presenting their findings to a panel of rocket scientists. As a result of this experience, the school started a science club. Image Credit: Matt Shields/Charlottesville High School

Throughout the calendar year, NASA holds numerous team competitions open to all grades. Teams put in hard work and long hours on their design or concept. Winning the grand prize is often a team's ultimate goal, and reaching that final stage can be a rewarding journey. But for the following schools, a NASA competition was just the first step in a series of events that has taken them further than they realized they would go.

The journey began in 2010, when NASA announced its annual Balloonsat High Altitude Flight competition, also known as BHALF. BHALF introduces high school students to engineering principles and practices by having them propose and design experiments that are carried 100,000 feet above Earth in NASA weather balloons. If selected as a finalist, the team designs and constructs its experiment, then watches it fly high into the atmosphere.

In Pennsylvania, teacher Patricia Palazzolo at Upper St. Clair High School learned about the BHALF competition from NASA's EXPRESS email, a list serve that sends weekly announcements related to NASA's education program. Palazzolo thought the competition looked interesting and forwarded the information to her students. The students began working on the project on their own. Palazzolo was unaware of their plans until they needed her signature to submit their proposal to NASA. Imagine her surprise when she found out her students' dedicated work paid off -- they were going to fly their experiment at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

Four students stand in front of a weather balloon holding their experiment in a white box with a NASA logo on it

The students from Upper St. Clair High School enjoyed meeting like-minded students and especially appreciated the opportunity to collaborate with NASA scientists on the experiments. Image Credit: Patricia Palazzolo/Upper St. Clair High School

Elsewhere in the country, teacher Matt Shields from Charlottesville High School in Virginia was looking for something to get his students excited about the annual science fair project. He'd already exhausted a number of creative ideas and was looking for something that would motivate his students to do real science. One of them read online about sending a balloon into the stratosphere and doing experiments in flight. After some discussion, Shields' team decided to enter the BHALF competition. Their decision was big news at the school and generated a lot of interest among their classmates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. The school's excitement was palpable when the team learned that they were finalists of the BHALF competition and were going to be given the chance to fly their design in a high-altitude balloon at Glenn Research Center.

In North Carolina, teacher Dr. Myra Halpin at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics assembled her team of students to design and submit plans to compete in the BHALF competition. The students designed an experiment using polyvinyl alcohol, or PVA, as a radiation shield. Like the schools in Virginia and Pennsylvania, the North Carolina team was selected to be in the finals. They too were on the way to Cleveland to discuss their designs with NASA engineers and scientists, and then fly their design testing their theories.

Four students and their teacher stand outdoors, with their experiment in a white box with a NASA logo on it

Some of the winning team members from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics continued their research and went on to win more awards. Image Credit: Myra Halpin/North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics

Having the chance to work with NASA researchers was exciting for all the teams. "Meeting the scientists with whom they had teleconferenced for several months, bonding with the teams from the other schools, touring Glenn, watching their payload lift off into a clear blue sky, and recovering it intact in a cornfield all contributed to a life-changing experience," Pat Palazzolo of Upper St. Clair said.

Teacher Matt Shields of Charlottesville High School remarked, "Just doing labs, you sometimes don’t realize how well connected that is to what scientists actually do. So standing in front of a panel of rocket scientists and presenting our data was pretty exciting."

The day to fly finally arrived: May 26, 2010. Of the teams from Virginia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, the winner of the 2010 BHALF competition was the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. Their experiment, "Variations in Polyvinyl Alcohol Radiation Shields," demonstrated radiation shielding with homegrown polyvinyl alcohol films through a combination of ground tests and a flight experiment.

Typically, the story would stop for these schools at this point -- the competition was over and one winner had been announced. But for these teams, the BHALF competition was only the beginning.

While at BHALF, the students enjoyed being around others who shared similar interests. The team from North Carolina told the others about the Conrad Foundation Spirit of Innovation Awards competition. According to its website, "The competition provides students the opportunity to design, develop, and commercialize innovative products using science and technology that solve 21st-century problems.” The competition is named after NASA astronaut Pete Conrad, and NASA is one of the partners in the competition. The Upper St. Clair team was so excited about their experience with BHALF, they decided to enter the "Spirit of Innovation" Awards event under the Aerospace Exploration category. The team finished as Grand Champions for the awards and received the "Public Choice" award in Aerospace. As a result of the win, the students received a $5,000 grant to continue their research and develop their product. Teacher Pat Palazzolo said, "They were SO excited to continue their research that they were at school on Friday of the holiday weekend until 6 p.m. ordering parts so they can work on their experiments over the summer!"

12 students sitting on rocks beside a lake

The students ate lunch beside the water while waiting for their balloons to burst and their payloads to land. Image Credit: NASA

And it wasn't just the Upper St. Clair High School that won at the Conrad Awards: The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics also won in the Cybersecurity category, while Charlottesville High School was a finalist in the Clean Energy category.

One competition leads to such life-changing events, but the story still doesn't stop.

Tim Dedula of NASA's Glenn Research Center was so impressed with the teams that he told them about another competition that might showcase their academic drive. That contest is the Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites, or SPHERES. The SPHERES contest is the Zero Robotics programming competition, sponsored by NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Two of the BHALF teams, Upper St. Clair High School and Charlottesville High School, entered the SPHERES competition. And both were selected as two of the 10 finalists to compete remotely on board the International Space Station. The Upper St. Clair BHALF team's excitement from the competition was so contagious that they were able to recruit additional teammates for the SPHERES entry.

As for the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, after returning from Glenn Research Center and BHALF with inconclusive data, two students decided to continue working on their concept, Halpin said. With their additional work incorporated into their report, they took their winning BHALF entry and submitted it to the American Chemical Society, the Siemens Corporation, and the North Carolina Junior Science and Humanities Symposium. The team won second place in the poster session at the North Carolina Section of American Chemical Society annual meeting. They were semifinalists in the Siemens competition and finalists in the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, earning them an invitation to the national symposium in San Diego.*

Three different schools, three different teams, each hoping to make it to NASA to fly their designs in high-altitude balloons: For these schools, their hard work and determination carried them even further. What was originally their ultimate goal ended up becoming the beginning step in their journey.

*At the time this feature was written, two students from North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, along with their teacher Dr. Myra Halpin, were in Singapore presenting their research from the BHALF project. They were the only team from the United States to give a poster session at the international science contest.

The Balloonsat competition and similar education programs help NASA attract and retain students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines critical to the agency's future missions. Balloonsat is sponsored by the Educational Programs Office at NASA's Glenn Research Center, the Ohio Space Grant Consortium and Teaching from Space, a NASA Education office that provides many education flight activities and experiences for K-12 students and educators.

Related Resources:
› Balloonsat High Altitude Flight Competition   →
› 2010 BHALF Competition   →
› NASA Education
› Spirit of Innovation Awards   →
› Teaching From Space

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services
Heather S. Deiss/ NASA Educational Technology Services