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A near-space odyssey High-altitude balloons are students’ tools for scientific discovery


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

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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.

Community winter 2013  
Community winter 2013  

"Community" is the quarterly magazine of Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska.