Writing a hypothesis and designing an experiment for a high altitude balloon flight

David Kobilka, Central Lakes College
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This is a small part of a much larger project in which students complete an high altitude balloon flight (HAB). In this part they complete a series of steps that encourage collaboration, communication, cooperation, and best practices in designing an experiment for the flight.

In this activity students will;
- Communicate and collaborate with experimental design team members to achieve a specific goal
- Seek advice from knowledgeable specialists as part of the information-seeking process
- Incorporate knowledge from past student HAB experience to refine ideas.
- Identify useful resources for designing an experiment.
- Apply lessons from past HAB experiments, and advice form knowledgeable physical scientists.
- Compose a working hypothesis.
- Design an experiment to test a working hypothesis.

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This activity is designed for introductory geoscience lab classes. The typical student in these classes has no formal training in science, doing science, or understanding the process of science. However the project, an HAB flight, is accomplished only with collaboration with at least the college physics department. Physics and engineering students are assigned the task of preparing and testing software and electronics associated with the flight. The geoscience students are busied with experimental design and testing, and flight prediction (weather forecasting component), and tracking (GIS component)

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

College-level literacy and numeracy
They will have practiced hypothesis-writing during a 2 hour lab activity.

By the beginning of this activity students will have had introductory exposure to the following concepts:
Structure of Earth's atmosphere: Temperature, Pressure, Ozone
Composition of Earth's atmosphere
Greenhouse effect and atmospheric convection
Relative humidity and cloud formation
By the beginning of this activity students also will have a basic introductory understanding of what a HAB flight is, and how they will be involved.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity begins early in the semester as a way of setting the standard for all activities throughout the semester (a content-centered course that emphasizes engagement and results). Also, the experiment that they design has to be built and ready to fly by mid-semester.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Demonstrate an understanding of the dynamic physical properties of Earth's atmosphere.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

- Compose a working hypothesis, demonstrating the characteristics of testability, falsifiability, repeatability.
- Design an experiment to test a working hypothesis revealing an understanding of the difference between controlled versus natural experiments, and the recognition of, and need to, control variables.

Other skills goals for this activity

Working collaboratively to design an experiment.

Presenting one's ideas orally.

Seeking information beyond looking something up on Wikipedia: consulting texts, previously written work on HAB experiments, seeking advice through talking to physics, math, and science college faculty.

Description and Teaching Materials

This activity is the first step in a larger project where the class will fly a high altitude balloon (HAB). In this part the product students produce that will be used later is a working hypothesis and experiment designed and constructed to fly with the HAB. However, the emphasis here is on the process which has two primary component, both of which are steps that a professional scientist might take:

1) That students consult with colleagues about the flight, physical paramaters, and design. They are provided with a list of "colleagues" that they can consult with: college faculty in physics, engineering, math, and sciences.

2) That students review past reports of HAB flights. Each semester students write reports. The best of these are saved and placed in an on-line reference list (anonymously, and with permission). The students are encouraged to refer to these for ideas,and to identify pitfalls and failures so that they are not repeated.
Student handout for HAB hypothesis and design (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 23kB Aug8 14)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Many students need much encouragement to complete this activity. Problems with inexperience arise when they are asked to,
- Work collaboratively
- Speak with science/math/physics faculty as a way of seeking advice, ideas.
- Read science textbooks for the purpose of learning a concept and applying it somewhere else.
- Problem-solve and freely (without direction) use one's imagination.


After sufficient time to develop the hypothesis and to design the experiment, each student team presents their idea to the rest of the class. The students in the class rank the experiments. Since everyone in the class belongs to one of the teams (3-4 person teams), everyone is prepared at some to level evaluate the experiments.

This process ends in the building and flying of an experiment on an HAB, launched about mid-semester.

References and Resources