Near Space Satellites: A Science/Tech Collaborative Maker Project

Open Window School recently provided a year-long professional development experience on 21st century learning for all faculty.  After the training was complete, our school offered Summer Innovation Grants to teachers who wanted to collaborate and develop a new projects incorporating 21st century skills.  We (LeeAnn Stivers- 6th Grade Science Teacher & Adrienne Gifford - Innovation & Technology Lab Director) were awarded a grant which we used to develop this project.

Peep in (near) space!

Peep in (near) space!

Open Window School 6th graders embarked on quite an adventure recently, heading to where no Peep (at least that we are aware of) has been before! As a collaborative science and technology project, sixth graders worked through the scientific method and engineering design process to design, build, and program flight computers, sensors, and cameras that would be sent up during a high-altitude balloon launch in March.

Students began by studying the layers of the atmosphere, studying the characteristics including; air pressure, temperature, light spectrum, and weather conditions. They also began exploring the ways that balloon payloads survive the harsh and hostile conditions in a launch. Students worked in teams, each member in a defined role of Chief Scientist, Lead Engineer, Communications Director, or Manager as they began to formulate experimental questions and hypothesis, such as, “At what altitude does the ozone layer begin?” and “How do objects change shape/ size when they are at near-space altitudes?"

Students learned about electronics and soldering before building and assembling their flight computers and sensors (temperature, RH, photometers, etc.) themselves.   As students worked in teams to construct their flight computers, they explored electronic components, schematics, PCBs, and testing with multi-meters.  Students then applied their background knowledge in computer programming to program their flight computers, modified cameras, and sensors using BASIC in PICAXE Editor.

ISTE Standards for Students emphasized in this project include:

Creativity and innovation

  • Apply existing knowledge to generate new ideas, products or processes
  • Identify trends and forecast possibilities

Communication and collaboration

  • Interact, collaborate, and publish with peers, experts, or others employing a variety of digital environments and media
  • Communicate information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences using a variety of media and formats
  • Contribute to project teams to produce original works or solve problems

Research and information fluency

  • Process data and report results

Critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making

  • Identify and define authentic problems and significant questions for investigation
  • Plan and manage activities to develop a solution or complete a project
  • Collect and analyze data to identify solutions and/or make informed decisions

Digital citizenship

  • Exhibit a positive attitude toward using technology that supports collaboration, learning, and productivity.

Technology operations and concepts

  • Understand and use technology systems
  • Troubleshoot system and applications
  • Transfer current knowledge to learning new technologies


Once teams reviewed conditions in the stratosphere, teams assembled their payloads and prepared for launch day. The launch took place in Ellensburg, WA at the end of March at sunrise on a clear day. Students gathered at the launch site to run through the pre-flight checklists, fill balloons, and release two balloons.  The balloons made it to 93,000 feet in altitude to near space, twice as high as a commercial jet! They traveled 101 mph in the jet stream and were tracked by GPS.  Each minute, the flight computer was programmed to fire the camera shutter as well as record data from each sensor.


The final step in the launch was the recovery. We tracked across cow pastures and through sage filled gullies to recover the balloons and their payloads. Following the launch, students disassembled the payload, retrieved then analyzed their data in Excel for a project report.  Check out this article featuring the project!

Student teams will share their data and results at the Open Window School STEM Day on May 21st!

Looking for more collaborative technology projects?  Check out the "Making" Our Community a Better Place: An 8th Grade Collaborative Maker Project to see how Technology Teacher Adrienne Gifford and Humanities teacher Corey Paulson implented a semester-long student-directed Tech/Humanities collaborative maker project!