Category Archives: projects

AAPTWM16: Blueprints for Accessible and Affordable High-Altitude Ballooning

Mark Rowzee and I spoke at the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) 2016 Winter meeting as part of Session EI: Quadcopters, Drones and High Altitude Balloons. Our talk was “Blueprints for Accessible and Affordable High-Altitude Ballooning.”

Abstract: We’ll provide you will the blueprints for success since the moment you release your first high-altitude balloon, you are stricken with an unsettling combination of joy and terror. It is relativity easy to launch a high-altitude balloon; it requires much more planning, resources, and luck to get it back. We will share our experiences designing, launching, and recovering high altitude balloons over the past six years. We will share the science that can be done with a variety of student age groups (elementary, junior high, and high school). We will share the materials necessary for a successful launch and recovery for a variety of budgets. We will share the safety precautions that are required. Finally, we have photos, videos, resources, and stories that we hope will inspire you to conduct your own launch.

Physics Capstones

This year’s AP Physics B capstones were as great as last year’s. Click there to read more about how I structure capstones.

  • Joe’s GravitON – A Python based N-Body Gravity Simulator. Cleanly implemented and well documented VPython implementation of the n-body problem. Can’t wait until Joe offloads process to the GPU!
  • Danny’s Resistance Bands vs Free Weights. A well-designed experiment to model resistance bands.
  • Andrew’s Amateur Kitchen Rocketry. Very creative. Have you ever considered building an olive-oil-powered rocket?
  • Helen’s [Springboard Diving](Amateur Kitchen Rocketry). Great video analysis and fantastic video interviews of coaches and divers.
  • Matt’s Pony Physics: Very creative and thorough exploration of the physics of My Little Pony.
  • Andrew’s Rifle Toss: wonderful application of more advanced physics to determine the energy needed for an 8-rotation rifle toss. (Web page struggles to display the equations; refer to PDF at the bottom.)
  • Nathan’s Physics of Intonation: answers the question “how important is it to play in tune?” Includes a Python script that calculates superposition and a great Minute Physics-style video.
  • Nathan’s Putt Simulator: Models the motion of a golf ball on a generated surface. Incredible application of calculus and computational modeling. (Requires Python, VPython, and Matplotlib.)
  • Michael’s Tunnel to the Center of the Earth: Wonderful Minute Physics-style video supported by Excel-based computational models. Cites Rhett Allain’s How Long Would It Take to Fall through the Earth, solves Rhett’s homework, and then assigns his own.

Based on feedback from students, I’m going to make a one change for next year. Several students actively peer reviewed each other’s capstones. This was fantastic and improved the quality. I wanted to make this a required activity next year.

I think this year’s class benefited from seeing examples from last year’s class. Now that I have a diverse collection of excellent capstones to share, students have an easier time understanding what a capstone is and how to present it in an engaging manner.


My AP Physics B class developed capstones as their final rather than a traditional exam. I give them tons of tests to help them prepare for the AP exam; so, I didn’t want to give them a traditional summative final for the fall semester. I wanted them to synthesize multiple concepts, have a choice in the topic they pursue, and present it in an engaging and creative manner.

I had remembered reading about John Burk’s capstones and modeled mine after his. While I have done similar end-of-semester projects before, these were by far the most successful. Reflecting on the capstones, I think a couple of factors helped my students be so successful.

The first is that I provided several exemplars as sources of inspiration. I stressed that I didn’t want a traditional lab report or a PowerPoint presentation. I wanted something that other students would want to read or watch. I pointed students to the following YouTube channels and blogs:

Based on our current unit, I frequently share links to these folks; so, most students were familiar with their style. Since I wanted students to spend the final exam period engaged in each other’s capstones and I would be spending my winter break scoring these capstones, I wanted them to be as interesting as possible.

The second factor that contributed to my students’ success is the requirement that students submit an initial idea for their capstone and then are provided considerable time in class for work and feedback from me. I spent an entire two days moving from student to student and sharing feedback on their capstone. Students had two additional days to work in class, solicit additional feedback, and use lab equipment. This wasn’t enough feedback for every student. A few really needed another round of review and feedback as their capstones missed the mark. While they could have solicited this additional input on their own, their final capstone would have been better if I could have shared another round of feedback.

The third factor that contributed to success is that I provided access to a wide range of technology, but I didn’t mandate that students use any particular technology. This is how educational technology should be integrated into the classroom, it is a tool to enhance learning where appropriate and not a means to an end unto itself. Students chose to use a high-speed video camera, Tracker, Logger Pro, iPads, iPad document camera stand, Educreations app, Scribd, video screen capture, VPython, LabPro and sensors, Vimeo video hosting for embedding, and Canvas ePortfolios.

There were so many fantastic capstones. I selected several to share that represent the variety of engaging presentations:

Thanks to John Burk for planting the capstone seed in my mind and Derek, Henry, Rhett, and Randall for providing amazing and engaging exemplars for my students to model!

In case you’re interested, here is the rubric. It isn’t perfect, but it worked okay:

Download (PDF, 36KB)

Inspiring Younger Students with Near-Space Balloons

On Sunday, my school’s Physics Club launched their third annual near-space balloon. It was a fantastic success this year. Our first year, we simply focused on launching and retrieving our payload with photos and videos. Last year, we focused on gathering data (temperature, pressure, radiation). This year, we focused on inspiring younger students in our school district.

High school students in Physics Club contacted former teachers at the elementary and middle schools and asked if they would be interested in collaborating on the design and construction of an experiment to be launched to the edge of space. Four schools accepted the challenge. The high school students visited the classroom to introduce the project and followed up with additional visits in person or via video conferencing.

The ideas generated by the younger scientists were amazing. One elementary classroom wanted to see what would happen to Jello and popcorn throughout the flight. Another explored the effect of pressure on Peeps and sealed rubber duckies containing water or air. One classroom painted craft sticks with nail polish that changes color based on temperature and UV radiation. Another put condiment packages in a payload and filmed them throughout the launch. The final experiment was testing how a battery powered light changes throughout the flight.

We launched from a new location this year to provide a greater buffer between the predicted landing zone and the no-fly zone around Chicago due to the NATO summit. We didn’t want a F-16 shooting down our experiments. We experienced a near-failure due to under filling the 3000-g balloon, but we recovered and had a successful launch. Due to a grant we received from our district’s educational foundation, we were able to purchase new equipment so we could track the balloon throughout the flight. We installed an APRS transmitter on the balloon that sends GPS coordinates over the HAM radio band. This signal is picked up by repeater stations throughout the area as well as by our own rig which we interfaced to a computer to map the location of the balloon. It was quite a different dynamic this year as we knew the location of the balloon every minute. We hung out in a McDonalds and tracked the balloon; the whole group cheered when we passed 100,000 feet. You can export the tracking data from and display it in Google Earth.

Flight path

The balloon reached a maximum altitude of 105,330 feet (~20 miles) and the flight lasted 2 hours and 34 minutes. Here is the video of the flight:

We also created an album that contains videos of the preparation for the launch and the analysis of each school’s experiment after the launch.

This year’s project would not have been possible without the support and efforts of many people. The Naperville Education Foundation, Space for All, Adler Planetarium, and W9BKO. In addition, several science teachers from my school contributed and alumni with much needed expertise assisted. Finally, the classroom teachers who accepted the challenge of this project late in the school year made it an amazing experience for all of us.

If you are interested in launching a near-space balloon and have questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me. My colleague and I have presented our tips for launching your own near-space ballon which you may also find helpful.

The Physics of Art and the Art of Physics

At the end of the year, we make time for a final project in our General Physics class. We purposefully define a very nebulous standard to provide the ultimate flexibility in this project:

Understand the relationships among science, technology, and society in historical and contemporary contexts.

Last year, due to the topical nature of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, we choose the topic of nuclear energy.

This year, a colleague had the fantastic idea to choose a cross-discipline topic: the Physics of Art. I suggested extending the topic to include the Art of Physics. This topic: The Physics of Art and the Art of Physics will allow students to explore one of their passions and explore the physics and artistic elements of that passion. I expect some fantastic projects.

My colleague created the following introduction document:

Download (PDF, 55KB)

Another created the rubic:

Download (PDF, 50KB)

I created an exemplar:

Download (PDF, 251KB)

I’m using the new (at least to me) feature of WikiSpaces where I can define a project and teams. Each class is its own team, but they can view and comment on other classes’ projects. This will make maintenance of the wiki manageable over multiple years.

I’ll share some of my favorites and let everyone know how this year’s project goes. I have high expectations!

Near-Space Ballooning County Institute Session

My colleague and I, who advise our school’s Physics Club, volunteered to share our our experiences over the past two years designing, launching, and retrieving near-space balloons. Last year’s balloon reached an altitude of over 100,000 feet and captured amazing photos, video, and temperature and radiation data. We discussed the technologies involved in near-space ballooning such as GPS receivers, microcontrollers, programmable cameras, and sensors. We also shared different approaches to designing near-space balloons that fit a variety of budgets. Finally, we discussed this year’s project in which younger students are designing and building experiments to be launched as part of this spring’s balloon launch.

The slides we presented are below as is our handout with links to various resources. This is a fantastic project for a group of students to tackle. If you decide to try to launch a balloon, please feel free to contact me.

Download (PDF, 7.85MB)

Download (PDF, 37KB)

Physics Club and the Row-Bot Challenge

Three years ago my instructional coordinator encouraged myself and another physics teacher to start an after school club for students to “do cool physics stuff.” That first year, we focused on building small projects related to physics. We built candle-powered steam engines, homopolar motors, LED throwies, vibrobots, and styrofoam plate speakers. Two years ago, we started with the small projects, but then the students were inspired to launch a near-space balloon. Once the students set their minds to lauching their own near-space balloon, the club transitioned from a primarily teacher-led organization to a student-led one.

Last year, we started with a ping pong ball launcher challenge. After this kickoff, students decided to build a large hovercraft in the fall and then take it on tour to share with the community and excite people, especially younger students, about STEM. In the spring, we launched our second near-space balloon.

While Physics Club has increased in popularity and size in the past three years, we were amazed when over fifty students stayed after school on Friday to join Physics Club. We’re still figuring out how to keep this many students engaged and what our big project will be for the fall. To keep everyone active while we figure this out, we introduced the 2011 Physics Club Row-Bot Challenge:

The club will document this project on its web site. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Why the Row-bot Challenge? Well, we are considering building some sort of remote-controlled craft that can film video hundreds of feet underwater. This challenge may be a good precursor for that.

In addition to kicking off the challenge, the students had a great time filming with the high-speed camera. They are still trimming the footage and preparing the website, but here’s one of my favorites:

We also borrowed a thermal imaging camera that is normally used to diagnose computer hardware issues. While we don’t let the students use this camera, we still found some interesting things to image. One of my favorite was this comparison of an incandescent, CFL, and LED light bulb:

thermal images of light bulbs

While not planned, we also debunked those ghost TV shows. One student noticed that the camera was picking up what appeared to be a thermal ghost inside the adjacent room. This was puzzling until another student realized that the “ghost” was simply my infrared reflection off the glass door in the adjacent room. Science for the win!

Nuclear Physics Project Reflections

I have a few notes to share about the outcome of the Nuclear Physics Project.

If you are interested in seeing the final projects, the entire nnhsphysics wiki is available. If you don’t want to read every page, I created an index that highlights several project pages that cover a variety of topics in a variety of ways.

In terms of the quality of the projects, many students were very creative with their presentation methods. I strongly encouraged and pushed students to find creative ways to present their projects. I should have spent more effort encouraging students to have strong science, technology, and society-related content. In general, the content wasn’t as thorough, complete, and as accurate as I had hoped.

Overall, I think students learned a great deal about the history of nuclear weapons and nuclear power. I forget that events that I lived through (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl) are consigned to the last pages in my students’ U.S. History text that they never get to read.

In terms of technology, I was very impressed with Wikispaces. Wikispaces is ideal for classroom projects. I was able to easily create accounts for nearly 150 students very easily even though students don’t have school e-mail addresses. It is trivial to search by student name to see their recent edits to their pages and comments that they have made. The permissions model is sufficiently flexible to allow everyone to view content, yet only members to edit and comment on it.

I was also impressed with Scribd. It was very reliable and makes it easy to embed documents in Wikispaces. I found the ability to embed the document, either as individual pages to scroll through or as a slideshow, particularly useful.

A couple technologies were disappointing. TeacherTube was unreliable in terms of being accessible and successfully uploading videos. The 24-or-more-hour delay for approval, while understandable, was frustrating at times. The only reason I used it at all was that it wasn’t blocked by my school’s web filters.

Speaking of web filters, it goes without saying that they made these projects more cumbersome and frustrating than I would have liked. That said, the technology staff at my school was great about unblocking sites that were obstacles to students working on their projects.

Also disappointing was the wireless performance in my classroom. All students were able to connect via wireless but would frequently have difficulties logging into Wikispaces or posting comments on Wikispaces. They were particularly frustrated when they would compose a thoughtful comment only to lose it when the submission timed out. Reflecting back on this experience, I wonder if this was due to some sort of latency issue and Internet Explorer’s relatively short timeouts. I may try using Firefox to see if that mitigates the issue.

Overall, I would definitely try something similar to this again. Next time, I would like to plan a bit more ahead and have more time for the project so I could involve educators and students from other schools. If you have any tips for me for next time, please share!

Near-Space Balloon

The Physics Club at my school recently completed our second-annual near-space balloon launch and recovery. Our goal was to launch the balloon payload to over 100,000 feet. We planned to record pressure, temperature, and radiation data; test the effects of altitude on biological samples; capture photos and video; and, ideally, recover the payload! While we didn’t achieve every goal, the launch and recovery was a resounding success.

An alumni of the Physics Club worked with Ken Walczak from the Far Horizons project at Adler Planetarium last summer and suggested that we contact Ken. The students contacted and met with Ken on their own, set the goals for the project, and designed and constructed almost every element of the balloon. (Ken provided the pressure and radiation sensors, while I provided the Arduino and temperature data logger.)

This project was a good excuse for me to buy a new Arduio Uno and the Data Logger shield from Adafruit. The data logger shield was easy to assemble, simple to interface with via the Arduino, and convenient to retrieve the data due to the SD card storage.

Armed with our supplies, we met up with Ken in El Paso, Illinois (selected due to its launch-friendly park and sufficient distance from Lake Michigan). With his experience, Ken provided many tips as well as the 1000-gram balloon!

We inflated the balloon:

IMG 5196

… assembled the payload and connected it to the parachute and balloon:

IMG 5201

.. and the president of Physics Club let go! (That process took over two hours!)

100 0316

The camera captured a great arial view of El Paso, Illinois:

IMG 1477

… and quickly rose above the clouds:

IMG 1567

While not definitive, based on our data, we estimate that the payload reached at least 105,000 feet:

IMG 2109

… before the balloon popped and the payload fell to earth:

IMG 2325

We used a cell phone that sent GPS coordinate to a web site to track the balloon. Unfortunately, the cell phone stopped sending coordinates immediately after launch. As a result, we had no idea where the balloon was until the payload landed back on the ground, two hours and forty minutes after launch. Fortunately, it landed in a vacant lot in a subdivision relatively close to the predicated location. We were able to retrieve the payload, recover all the data, and be home for dinner.

We had some issues with the data logging. The pressure data wasn’t valid (we were having issues before even launching; so, we weren’t too surprised). Also, the Arduino got too cold when falling and some of our temperature data may be suspect. Regardless, the graphs of temperature vs. time correlated with radiation counts will provide some authentic data for our freshman earth science class next year:


Next year, we plan on replacing our cell phone-GPS tracking system with a GPS receiver connected to a APRS transmitter. We don’t like losing contact with the payload during launch. We also hope to invite our district’s middle schools to design experiments to include in the payload. The students also expressed interest in adding a camera facing upward to capture a new perspective.

If you are interested in launching your own near-space balloon, feel free to contact me and, while limited, I’ll share our experiences!

Nuclear Physics Project

This year, after completing our four major units of second semester in regular physics, we planned on a project that would address Illinois Science Goal 13: “Understand the relationships among science, technology and society in historical and contemporary contexts.” This project has the potential to move beyond content and integrate perspectives from many other disciplines. I had some ideas in mind, but after the Fukushima disaster, my colleague and I decided that our final project would focus on nuclear physics. Here is the description of the project that we will distribute to students:

Download (PDF, 51KB)

One aspect of this project that I’m really excited about is that we will be publishing all of the projects on Wikispaces so that they can be viewed by other students and professional both within and outside of our school.

I’m also very excited about the manner in which students will present their projects online. In order to highlight how technology influences the communication of scientific ideas and events throughout our society and how that has changed throughout history, we’ve encouraged students to create a juxtaposition between the time period of the topic and the presentation method that they select. For example, if their topic is historical, choose a presentation method that is modern (e.g., Marie Curie and her Facebook status updates). Or, if their topic is modern, choose a presentation method that is historical (e.g., black-and-white news documentary of fusion reactor).

I’m very interested in your feedback or involvement. Do you know of other topics related to nuclear physics that we should add to our potential topics list? Do you have ideas for other engaging presentation methods? Are you or your students interested in viewing and commenting on these projects in late May? If so, please contact me either via Twitter (@gcschmit) or via e-mail (geoff at this domain). Regardless, when the projects are published, I’ll post the link here.

Update: 20/6/11 11:09 PM

All of the student projects are on nnhsphysics wiki hosted by Wikispaces. I created an index of sample projects which contains projects on a variety of topics created in a variety of mediums.