building a bioballoon
When school’s out for the summer, students everywhere rejoice—some are looking forward to the sports they will play, the friends they will see, the money they will make or the relaxing they will undoubtedly do. Others, like the 14 Mt. Lebanon seniors brought together by a shared AP Environmental Geoscience experience, enthusiastically devote those precious summer months to building a bioballoon.
“It is not an official club. These students are just doing something extra and stepping out of their comfort zone with a hands-on experience,” says Dr. Michael Gullo, MacArthur Drive, who acts alongside fellow AP Environmental Geoscience teacher Vince Scalzo as a faculty advisor for the Mt. Lebanon bioballoon project. They performed the same roles for a group of students who built a weather balloon in 2015.
The weather balloon/bioballoon concept is simple: a large balloon, filled with helium, attaches to a payload—in this case, a Styrofoam container spray painted orange—and ascends up to 100,000 feet into the atmosphere. When it pops, a parachute opens, and the payload and its contents—usually atmospheric censors, cameras or other experiments—fall to the surface of the Earth.
The bioballoon project is an evolution of a proposal that Gullo and Scalzo have been making in their classes for years. “When we reach the part of the curriculum about the atmosphere, we show a video of a father-son duo, from 2010, where they sent a weather balloon up with just an iPhone, and it recorded the ascent in the atmosphere and descent back to Earth,” says Gullo. “So each year, we see if there are students who want to try it—but not replicate the entire study, we want them to try something different.”
The first group to take them up on the offer was in 2015. Their weather balloon carried UV and temperature censors into the atmosphere, with the goal of seeing whether the ozone layer is thinner in the Pittsburgh area. The study was inconclusive, since they did not have comparable data, but they did capture video of Pittsburgh from the stratosphere (see below).
This year’s group is the second to take on the challenge. What makes it a bioballoon, rather than a regular weather balloon, is a biology element. “We will be studying the effects of cosmic rays and ultraviolet light on gene expression and biochemical pathways in organisms,” says project leader Samara Steinfeld, Arden Road. The organisms she refers to are seeds—a variety of which will be voyaging into the atmosphere on the balloon and then returning to Earth, where they will grow alongside a control group to compare traits such as leaf size, plant height and root depth over time. The students will also be placing a special kind of yeast in the bioballoon that changes color when its genetic information has been mutated—adding another biological component to the experiment.
Steinfeld and her classmates approached their teachers about building this bioballoon in October, 2018, when they were juniors. It took them many months to solidify the specifics of their experiment and secure funding. They pitched their idea to Mt. Lebanon School District Technology Director Christopher Stengel, who decided to bankroll the project out of his budget because of its real-life technological applications. Then the students did the bulk of their building and research over the summer—often meeting twice a week—and have continued meeting as needed during the school year, usually before the day starts, at 7:15 a.m.
Now, more than a year after the start of the project, the students are preparing for launch. “February is looking pretty clear,” says Steinfeld. “Because of weather, it is hard to choose a launch date too far in advance.”
“I don’t want to say this is ‘by the seat of our pants,’ but there are just so many factors involved,” says Gullo. “They have software that helps them predict how much helium to use, where it will land, plus weather conditions. We already scrapped twice because of unfavorable weather.”
In 2015, the balloon launched on a cold, non-windy day in December. While the software predicted it would land near State College, it actually only wound up blowing about sixty miles away, to Indiana County, where it landed in the middle of a field.
“We have to launch before springtime because it makes it difficult to find the capsule if the leaves are growing. We got lucky last time. We didn’t have to hike through the woods to find it,” says Gullo.
This year, because the students want the balloon to ascend a bit higher into the atmosphere, where there are higher wind speeds, they expect that they will have to drive up to four hours away—beyond State College, since the wind blows west to east—to retrieve the capsule.
“As the project lead, in addition to making sure the team stays on track … it is my job to anticipate our needs for the launch,” says Steinfeld. “Along with Anna Klein and Sein Lee, I earned my ham radio technician license to help track it. I also keep in contact with the Federal Aviation Administration and local airports as we plan our launch.”
Once the students locate the payload, the experiments can begin. Their group is split into six teams: launch through land, vehicle, sensors, biology, data and PR. So the biology and data teams will take over and either prove or disprove their theory—that exposure to cosmic rays and UV light will change the gene expression in the seeds and yeast—by the end of the school year.
“One thing that’s different this time around is that more students are interested in the life sciences on this project than in the physical engineering sciences. There are a specific group of students that are doing this specifically to be on the bio team,” says Gullo, who noted that, out of the 2015 group, most went on to pursue physical science studies such as mechanical engineering, computer technology or aerospace engineering.
“We all share a common interest in research, but one of the cool things about this is that the members are involved in everything from sports to coding clubs to music to the literary magazine,” says Steinfeld. She plans to major in physics or math in college, but other members may be pursuing studies outside of the sciences.
So why build this bioballoon? It’s not a club, it doesn’t count for credit, and some of the students may not necessarily be using these skills again. For Gullo, the answer is obvious. “These kids work so hard to separate themselves—or at least they should—from other candidates going into college. Even if they don’t get themselves involved in a weather balloon in the future, they need to look for these sorts of opportunities. It looks impressive in a college essay, or in letters of recommendation where I mention this project.”
For this reason, Gullo and Scalzo will continue offering the opportunity to their students each year, but certain conditions need to be met—the students have to make the commitment during their junior year, the group needs to include more than a handful of participants, and the project needs to be interesting enough to receive funding. So it’s no guarantee, but Gullo and Scalzo will do whatever they can to help get a future balloon off the ground.
“This kind of learning is so much different than school. It’s not like chemistry lab, where the procedure is written out for you. There’s no equation bank to pick from,” says Steinfeld. “I learned so much about yeast and tracking and balloons, but also about collaboration and how to be more assertive. If everyone cares, it will be a positive educational experience.”