A near-space odyssey High-altitude balloons are students’ tools for scientific discovery F or physics instructor Kendra Sibbernsen, the mark of a successful student is one who can ask a good question. For example: When the Darth Vader theme song is played on an mp3 player in near space, is there a difference in sound quality? What is the voltage of a solar panel in near space? How does cosmic radiation change with altitude? In Sibbernsen’s classes, students have the freedom to ask outside-of-the-box questions — and test them using the scientific process. With support from the NASA Nebraska Space Grant program, Sibbernsen and her students have launched several unmanned high-altitude balloons that fly 5 • community • mccneb.edu high into the stratosphere, reaching between 80,000 and 100,000 feet, just above where airplanes fly. Known as “near space,” the stratosphere is a relatively unexplored area of the Earth’s atmosphere. “Essentially, what we’ve been developing is a space program — near space,” Sibbernsen said. Sibbernsen’s high-altitude balloon program grew out of a need to create more meaningful lab experiences for students. Unsatisfied with a “cookbook-y” approach to lab work, she created projects that allowed students to pose their own scientific research questions, often using real data available online.