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MDSGC and the National Federation of the Blind Youth Slam 2007

This summer the National Federation for the Blind (NFB) conducted its first Youth Slam, where they brought 200 high school students who were blind or visually impaired to the campus of Johns Hopkins University for a week of hands-on science and engineering activities. The Maryland Space Grant Consortium (MDSGC) supported the Youth Slam in several ways: providing financial support for students from Maryland who would not otherwise have been able to afford the registration fees, hosting a visit to the MDSGC Observatory, and running one of the major activities – Air Slam.

Air Slam was the title given to the balloon science activity in which 24 of the students selected to Students constructing the parachute for their payloadparticipate. Air Slam came about when one of the people planning for the Youth Slam attended a workshop on the MDSGC Balloon Payload Program that the team presented at last year’s meeting of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. He was very interested in the balloon program and suggested that it might be of interest to the Youth Slam. Since the Assistant Director of MDSGC had just met Mark Riccobono, the Education Director for the NFB, at the Mid-Atlantic SG meeting, all of these connections came together to create Air Slam. (Needless to say, making connections has always been a major strength of SG.) After some preliminary discussions it was decided to make Air Slam a major track in the conference, where the students would devote four mornings to the activity.

The major presenters for the workshop were Dr. Terry Teays, Assistant Director of MDSGC; Dr. Mary Bowden, University of Maryland College Park, Principal Investigator of the MDSGC Balloon Payload Program; and Dru Ellsberry, aerospace engineering student, University of Maryland College Park. Facilities arrangements at Johns Hopkins University were made by JHU graduate students working on the project and staff from NFB.

Inflating a weather balloon in the Great Hall in the Levering Building at JHUOn the first day of the workshop the students assembled their instruments. The instrument consisted of a simple circuit board that contained a temperature sensor and a radio transmitter that sent the temperature data to the ground via ham radio bands, using Morse code. Each team of three students and a mentor from NFB built a payload, so there were eight teams. The payload was based on a commercially available kit, but was modified so that the individual components were placed in sockets.

On the second day the students tested their transmitters to be sure that they were working. Next they constructed their parachutes out of plastic and string.

The next activity involved inflating a full-size weather balloon with helium so that the students could feel its size and make estimates of its lifting capacity. Most students tend to overestimate the lifting capacity, and these teams were no exception, though one student came very close to the value that they measured. Since latex weather balloons are very thin, the students put on gloves to assist with the inflation, just as researchers do when launching their instruments.

The final activity of the second day was to use party balloons filled with helium that had a cup attached to Neutral Bouyancy Activityit. The students used jelly beans to fill the cups until they achieved neutral buoyancy. This is not an easy task, but the students cheered when each team’s balloon finally was stationary – neither rising nor falling.

After a presentation on ham radio and Morse code on the third day, the students went to a large grassy area on the JHU campus and launched their payloads. Eight large party balloons were used to lift their payloads, and a ninth tracker balloon carried a GPS unit to radio back the location of the flotilla. Another member of the Balloon Payload Program, Dr. H. David Snyder of Galaudet University and DSCSG, assisted with the launch. Thought the payloads were technically exempt from Federal Aviation Administration regulations due to their weight and size, we communicated with the FAA and the Baltimore-Washington International Airport tower in the usual fashion for a scientific launch, and they had no objections. The launch went successfully and all the balloons were deployed and returned good signal.

One of the Air Slam student teams, preparing for their launchFor the final day, the students heard a talk from nnn, a retired Applied Physics Laboratory scientist, about his experiences with long duration scientific ballooning. The students then examined their data. The balloons ascended to about 30,000 feet. The temperature sensors reached a value of zero degrees Fahrenheit, which matched the predicted temperature at that height for that day. The students also received a tactile map of Maryland on which a typical balloon ground track was indicated using glued-on plastic sticks, as well as the ground track of their flight. Additional tracking support was provided by Pat Kilroy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and a team of ham radio operators.

The final activity was a session to hear from the students what went well and what needed improvement. A number of excellent suggestions were provided to the presenters who plan to incorporate them into future EPO activities. Details of the Air Slam will also be presented in September in a poster paper at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific meeting in Chicago.

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