Thursday, January 10, 2013

The scientific process

We launched Ella's weather balloon this morning. Conditions were not, shall we say, optimal. The skies were clear, but the wind was whipping through, which made inflating the balloon challenging. And things went downhill from there. Clusterf*ck is the word that comes to mind.

I took Ella, Elizabeth and all the gear down to the soccer field in our neighborhood. I figured it would be a good place to launch because it was clear of trees and power lines and anything else that might damage the balloon. What I hadn't figured on was that the field would be pretty much underwater. We squished our way to what looked to be dry ground and started setting up. 

It took us about half an hour to get the balloon inflated, and then we attached it to the parachute and payload. Nothing happened. The payload was too heavy, and the balloon just dragged it across the muddy field. Ella chased it down, and we conferred on our options.

We untied the balloon and worked on eeking every last cubic centimeter of helium out of our two tanks and tried again. 

No luck.

This time we tied down the balloon and worked on making the payload lighter. We started by removing the heat packs and insulation from the inside of the box and by taking a few of the washers off the thing that is supposed to measure gravity. 


At this point, Elizabeth retreated to the car and pretended to drive, only honking the horn at us a few times. 

Ella and I got extreme and cut the payload box in half and took off another washer. 

This time the payload hovered a few inches above the ground and got dragged sideways across the soccer field. Ella managed to catch it before everything went in the nearby pond. 

We anchored the balloon again and went back to the car to consider some options. I briefly considered leaving Ella in the field to keep an eye on the balloon and then driving to the store for helium. But the party store isn't open at 8:30am. 

Instead, we redesigned the payload. We got rid of the box and took two pieces of the styrofoam that we had been using as insulation and duct taped them together. Then we attached the gravity thing and Harry Potter and the parachute. That's when we discovered that recording our first hour of failed attempts had drained the phone's battery halfway. 

We plugged the phone in and warmed up in the car, while Ella panicked about how she was going to get a zero on her project and Elizabeth complained that she was bored. 

After 20 minutes, I declared that conditions were as good as they were going to get, and we got out of the car. Ella duct taped the phone to the platform and pressed record, and then she let go. We've placed a lot of faith in the stickiness of duct tape and the battery power of a mostly dead iPhone. 

We worried that the wind was going to carry the balloon in to the trees before it had a chance to gain enough altitude, but fortunately it kept going up and up. 

Now we wait. The last time we got a reading from the GPS tracker, the balloon was headed east toward Manchaca. 

While I drove Ella to school, she had a freakout about how she was going to get a zero on her science project because it wasn't going to work. I reminded her that there was a whole grading rubric and that she had done all the work for the project. If the balloon crashed or the cellphone stopped working, those were conditions out of her control and therefore part of the scientific process. She wouldn't know what would happen unless she tried. I'm not sure she's convinced. And I know she's very disappointed in how everything went. 

When Elizabeth and I got home, I rewarded both of us with mugs of hot chocolate and lots of mini-marshmallows.

I'll post updates as I have them, even if the update is that we lost track of the phone and can't find the payload. 

It's all part of the process, even if the process is frustrating and disappointing. 


knittergran said...

Very cool, watching that float away!

Unknown said...

and if she reports on what didnt work, that's as much of the experiment as what did work.

donna said...

From my experience homeschooling my kids science experiments can either be really fun and exciting or a big disappointment.Often the outcome is not what its supposed to be and the lesson you are trying to teach gets muddied and a little confused. But I think more than the results themselves the process of experimenting is most important.It sounds like you did a really great job designing the experiment and implementing it,and I'm sure that the effort that was put in is more important than the outcome.

Susan said...

I am sure there are a lot of scientists who can relate!