NEF Helps Students Reach New Heights

It was a sound not ordinarily heard in a high school corridor: a soft buzzing, like a small fan.

The sight was also unique…a black, spiderlike device whizzing, chest high, up and down the hallway.

No better time to test a homemade “drone” quadcopter than after school hours in the empty hallways of Naperville North High School!

Initial attempts to get a device airborne had failed. But after considerable tinkering and reprogramming by students in the Physics Club, one of the drones obeyed the controller commands of Senior Dhipak Bala. The quadcopter project, partially funded by a 2014 NEF grant of $3,000, is one piece of the NNHS Physics Clubs’ “Science in the Sky” program involving students from Jefferson and Washington Junior High Schools and their mentors at North. Students chipped in the remaining $3,000 for the purchase of parts needed to construct six of the four-propeller machines

NNHS senior Shipak Bala maneuvering a quadcopter.

Senior Arresh Amleshi works with junior high students.

Under the direction of instructor and project leader Mark Rowzee, 48 students divided into six teams work together on projects involving Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) with robotics being one aspect of the curriculum. According to Jefferson science instructor Josh Lewis: “Conceiving, building and operating quadcopters and other devices keeps students excited about science, and gets junior high students comfortable and familiar with the high school environment.”

The most expensive element on drones is a small computer – an eight-channel digital receiver system – the hub. The drones can be kept aloft for as long as 15 to 18 minutes with a maximum attainable altitude of 1,500 feet. Of course, safety first! They can only be flown during the day in order to be visible by the operator at all times; and FAA guidelines for small non-commercial drones limit them to 400 feet altitude, operated at least five miles away from airports.

Rowzee says the next step is to outfit two of the quadcopters with cameras so they can develop practical video and still photography applications. At the conclusion of the project, each of the two junior high schools will get two drones…one with, and one without, an on-board camera. Lewis said “This kind of learning can’t be beat.”

A second leg of the Science in the Sky project was the December 7 launch of a tech-laden helium balloon. Rowzee along with NNHS science teachers Doug Drmolka and Geoff Schmit accompanied a dozen students to the town park in El Paso, Illinois, 100 miles southwest of Naperville. Surrounded by farmland, the grassy park is an ideal location for scientific balloon launches.

The day was overcast and cold, but the wind direction and speed were favorable for reaching a hoped-for altitude of 105,000 feet…a record for NNHS balloon launches. The launch diameter of the latex balloon was eight feet; that would increase to 25 feet at peak altitude when the balloon would burst and fall to the ground at 500 miles per hour.

Instructors, from left, Mark Rowzee (NNHS), Jason Ryan (NNHS), Geoff Schmit (NNHS), Doug Drmolka (Washington Junior High) and Josh Lewis (Jefferson Junior High).

As planned, the team would then retrieve the payload of data on air pressure, temperature, solar radiation, as well as two “Go-Pro” cameras and several paper airplanes placed on board by Physics Club members.

Unwelcome winds buffeted the inflated balloon prior to launch.

Payload and balloon on their way! The balloon continues to expand as it rises to thinner air.

But at about 79,000 feet, the payload began to fall.

Everyone piled into four vehicles and headed east a few miles. The GPS device was found in a farm field, but there was no sign of the balloon or payload…or even a paper airplane. Darkness brought the search to a halt.

Rowzee said: “The working theory is that the tracking payload ripped free from the still-rising balloon and science payloads. We are reviewing the release videos to see if the tracking payload bag somehow was damaged. It was a tough release, in wind, for a balloon with more buoyant force than ever before.” Teachers and students alike are eager to resume the search – this time with a camera-equipped drone. Plans for an earlier excursion were grounded by illness.

Rowzee is philosophical: “As we say in the Robotics and Physics Club, failure is always an option…that’s how we learn the most.”

For more information about Science In The Sky, contact
Mark Rowzee, Naperville North High School

Through its Annual Grant Awards, NEF helps fund inspirational enrichment
programs created by District 203 teachers, parents and students. Each year,
30-50 grants are awarded in the categories of Literacy, Math & Science, Fine Arts,
Health & Physical Development, General and Cultural Studies.
Learn more

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