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Teens Explore the Edge of Space

Teachers and student interns teamed up this summer in effort to expand the reach of the Adler Planetarium’s Far Horizons program, which sends high altitude balloons into the stratosphere for the purpose of education, experimentation, and inspiration.  Two of our teen summer interns used a newly developed curriculum to design and build their own Far Horizons data-collecting experiment.  The curriculum will allow high school students with no experience in programming or circuit building, to quickly prototype sophisticated experiments using the Arduino microcontroller

Our summer interns, Jessica Nava  and Quinn Shepherd, designed an experiment to investigate the efficiency of photovoltaic cells (solar panels) at various altitudes.  As their experiment rose through the Earth’s atmosphere, it is  exposed to varying levels of infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light.  Their experiment tested how these changes in light levels affected the voltage output of a photovoltaic cell.  

To do this, Jessica and Quinn programmed an Arduino microcontroller to measure and record the voltage of the solar cell, while simultaneously recording light sensor data at several frequencies.  They then compared those light values to the efficiency of the solar cell, to see what types of light (and what altitudes) produce the highest photovoltaic cell efficiencies.  They believe this work has applications in the field of aerospace; particularly regarding high altitude solar powered aircraft.  Each student will detail their findings from portions of their Far Horizons experiment as submissions to next year’s Chicago Public Schools Science Fair.

The new Arduino based curriculum uses self-paced online tutorials and project based challenges to guide students through the basics of programming and circuit building which are required to complete a complex experiment like Jessica and Quinn’s.  This curriculum will be used to assist our teen interns and other motivated students with their individual Far Horizons experiments.  It will also be deployed into the classroom this coming school year, with planned launches of student designed experiments to be completed in March 2014.  We envision this curriculum being adapted to allow schools to explore the edge of space as a classroom project, afterschool club, or as student developed experiments to be launched into space through our Far Horizons program. 

Written by Aaron Lee, National Summer Learning Association Fellow, STEM Teacher and Robotics Mentor at Morgan Park Academy 

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