Category Archives: projects

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:

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

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

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

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… and quickly rose above the clouds:

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

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

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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:

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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.