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Whitworth physics students team with Northwood Middle School for high-altitude balloon launch

July 26, 2012
Launch supported by funding from NASA’s Washington Space Grant Consortium

            >> View Photos
On April 21, students from the Whitworth physics department and Northwood Middle School launched a helium-filled weather balloon in Lind, Wash. The balloon reached approximately 105,000 feet – three times higher than a commercial jet reaches – before it burst and landed about 100 miles away near Oakesdale, Wash., two hours later.

Though Whitworth physics students have launched similar balloons in the past, this year’s marked the first time students collaborated with middle school students. Throughout spring semester, four Whitworth physics students made weekly visits to Dave Gamon’s eighth-grade earth science class. They helped the Northwood students brainstorm research questions to be tested in “near space” and later helped them assemble a pod containing their experiments.

“The Northwood students were given freedom to formulate their own scientific questions and then devise experiments to test those questions in the environment of near space,” says John Larkin, Whitworth associate professor of physics. “Whitworth students had the opportunity to explain science to middle school students and share their enthusiasm for the subject.”

Larkin worked with Whitworth Associate Professor of Physics Kamesh Sankaran to acquire funding for the collaboration from NASA’s Washington State Space Grant Consortium. Larkin then contacted Gamon about working on the project. Larkin says Gamon was eager to join the project.

The students’ experiments primarily focused on how various materials respond to the extremely low pressures and temperatures of the near-space environment, Larkin says, though a few also examined the effects of intense ultraviolet light and radiation from cosmic rays. The pods contain sensors to measure temperature and pressure.  

A few pods carried cameras so people can view the pod contents as well as the Earth from high altitude. To view pictures taken on board the balloon, click the "View Photos" link above.

The command pod contained a GPS unit, a high-power radio to communicate with the tracking vehicles, and a low-power radio to receive data from the experiment pods. An additional pod contained a radio that broadcasted the balloon’s position on a frequency that can be picked up by ham radios and relayed to the Internet.

Sophomore Will Pollock, one of the Whitworth students involved in the project, described working with Gamon's students as a stretching but amazing experience. He says being a science mentor for a handful of eight-grade students tested his ability to be flexible and to keep the project moving at a reasonable pace.  

“Mr. Gamon was a steadfast source of encouragement, wisdom, and patience throughout this process, making this a valuable learning experience not only for his students, but also for me,” Pollock says. “However, the eight-graders themselves made this project fly – literally! They designed, built, and tested the pods; helped launch the balloon; and analyzed the data after recovery. I loved their energy, enthusiasm, and passion for anything that goes ‘bang!’”

The other physics students from Whitworth engaged in the collaboration were juniors Peter Landgren and Katie Olleman, and freshman Jacob Hunter. 

Larkin says Gamon will soon offer a new quarter-long class on space and another on flight at Northwood. Students in those classes will plan and execute another balloon launch with Whitworth physics students during the 2012-2013 academic year.

Located in Spokane, Wash., Whitworth is a private liberal arts university affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). The university, which has an enrollment of 3,000 students, offers 60 undergraduate and graduate degree programs.


John Larkin, associate professor of physics, Whitworth University, (509) 777-4865 or

Andrea Idso, interim public information officer, Whitworth University, (509) 777-4703 or