With sundown approaching, Debbra Smith found herself in the desert 77 miles north of Evanston, Wyo., tracking down a weather balloon launched by her sixth-grade class.
"It was really, truly in the middle of nowhere," Smith said. "It was truly an adventure."
The class from Elk Run Elementary school in Magna launched the balloon from Coalville at 11:41 a.m. on May 23. It rose to 91,110 feet in one hour, 55 minutes and 38 seconds and landed in another 31 minutes 160 miles away from the launch site.
"It was pretty awesome, and I felt happy that we actually got to that point," said Noa Foketi, a member of the class.
The students went back to school with a different teacher while Smith, her husband and exchange son from Brazil went in search of the balloon. The class met its goal of reaching the stratosphere.
"I liked it because we actually got to go somewhere really far, and it felt like I could accomplish anything. We sent it into space," said Uziel Gonzalez.
That is what Smith wanted her students to learn from the project.
"My No. 1 goal for the project was for each one of them to walk away with the knowledge that they can do anything, and almost every single student said that," Smith said. "I felt like I accomplished the task of helping them become independent so that when they go to junior high and high school, they can do this."
Working with the balloon also helped the students develop a different relationship with science.
"The science became more real to them. It wasn’t just what they saw in a movie or a book or anything, but they really understood that the Earth does have layers of atmosphere and that it is round and the sun is out in the distance and it does look like a star when you look at it from a different perspective," Smith said.
She said many students reflected on seeing the sun from a different angle.
"What I liked about it is that we could actually see the sun," said Beatrice Sierra.
The idea for the weather balloon came from a similar video with two girls launching a balloon towing a rocket carrying a small Hello Kitty video high in the atmosphere.
"I showed it to them, and the kids were like ‘Mrs. Smith, we have to do this,’ " Smith said.
The project was done entirely by the students, who did everything from finding helium to calculating where the balloon was going to land, selecting a site with the best winds for the launch and building the payload. The class also made a video and posted it on YouTube.
Smith said the hardest part for her was letting her students do all the work without her help. She wanted to give them the experience of doing it themselves.
"I had one boy come up to me after watching the video for the first time come to me and go ‘You know, I got emotional, Mrs. Smith, because I realized what we accomplished,’ and that was so cool. He was one of the studly boys in the class, so it was awesome," Smith said.
The class raised $300 to help fund the project. The principal of the school gave the class $600 for meeting a goal to raise their grades 10 percent from one quarter to the next. Smith paid for the rest.
Smith said she would probably do this again, but it would depend on the class.
"It takes a class that really works together well because there is lots of small group stuff and they have to be a team to make it happen," she said. "I have to say that this is one of those classes where there’s a lot of synergy in this class. We had been together as fifth-graders and moved into sixth grade together, and it worked very nicely."
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