Initial Publication Date: June 14, 2016

Undergraduate Research in Geoscience at Central Lakes College-Brainerd

Information for this profile was provided by David Kobilka, Geoscience.

Departmental/Institutional Context

Central Lakes College is a AA degree granting 2-year college in rural central Minnesota with an enrollment of 6000. The geoscience department has 1 full-time faculty and 2 faculty that teach geoscience courses on a part-time basis. There are an average of 8 geoscience courses taught per semester. The geoscience department stands alone but for governance purposes academic departments are grouped along the line between liberal arts and technical programs. The geoscience department is a liberal arts department.

Research Program Description

Our goals for this project are to:

  1. Provide an authentic geoscience research experience, involving hypothesizing, experimental design, fieldwork, experience with GIS, and data collection and analysis.
  2. Collaborate between acadademic departments and and across colleges.
  3. create opportunities for student teamwork.
  4. Reach out to the K-12 community and attract students to STEM.

The activity designed to meet these goals is High Altitude Ballooning (HAB). In this project students,

  1. hypothesize and design an experiment
  2. collect data in a field experience in which the outcome is not known in advance
  3. retrieve, process, and analyze data. Data processing requires that students recognize and eliminate data that is not useable.
  4. create a professional quality report in a standardized format.

To meet the above goals,

  1. students and faculty from the physics and geoscience department works together on the project, and courses from Central Lakes College and Bemidji State University are typically involved for each flight.
  2. the size, complexity, and multi-disciplinary nature of the project requires that involved students "specialize" and work together to make the project a success.
  3. for each flight we invite a local middle school to participate in whatever capacity they can manage. This can be anything from following the flight remotely via an internet connection, to designing an experiment that flies with the HAB, and entire class participation during launch, tracking, chase, landing, and retrieval.

In participating in this project, concomitantly students,

  1. work with uncertainty.
  2. work with complex electronic systems in extreme environments (Earth's upper atmosphere).
  3. work with GIS and redundant systems.
  4. learn that a falsified hypothesis is not failure.
  5. learn that science and scientific experiments are not tidy or linear.
  6. are reminded repeatedly that they are doing science.

Outcomes and Benefits

HAB projects at CLC meet the following geoscience course outcomes:

  1. Correctly operate modern field and laboratory analytical equipment.
  2. Perform field based investigations using standard geoscience techniques.
  3. Describe and explain observations in the context of contemporary Planetary and Geoscientific theories.
  4. Demonstrate written communication skills in science lab reports.

These outcomes are measured. Students are evaluated and outcomes are assessed regularly. At the end of an HAB, student's written reflections serves as a formative assessment of the project.

The learning benefits for the students arise according to not only the foundations of experiential learning, but also to the greater investment students have because they made the HAB flight possible. Without student commitment the flight would not succeed and students see this. Students also gain from the interdpeartmental and intercollegiate collaboration. Especially when working with Bemidji State University, students meet university professors and students.

The geoscience department benefits from HAB in the following ways,

  1. We suspect it is attracting students to geoscience courses. We have only anecdote to support this: new student ask about the HAB.
  2. It brings recognition to the geoscience department by other academic departments and by administration.
  3. It attracts funding to the geoscience department.
  4. Interdpartment and intercollegiate collaboration means we can get more done by sharing the work and costs.

Challenges and Solutions

We feel that one strategy we use that makes the HAB "work" is that every phase of the project is accompanied by close guidance, peer-feedback, and the fact that everyone is doing the same thing at the same time. What we do not do is give students a task and tell them to "go do it," rather, for each step, we all do the same thing at the same time. All students hypothesize and design their experiments, in teams, in the same time frame. Afterwards, each team presents their experiment to the rest of the class and receives feedback. During the day of the HAB flight, by necessity everyone launches their experiment and gathers their data during the same two-hour flight. Nobody can be left behind because if one payload is not working correctly, the entire flight is held up. By the time of the launch, systems have been checked and re-checked many times, everyone knows what is expected of them, and everyone knows what everyone else should be doing. Gaps in knowledge or action get filled in by more knowledgable or proactive students.

An administrative challenge has been justifying the expense of the HAB to college administrators. Our response has been to involve middle schools, and opportunities for publicity.

While the HAB is generally well-regarded by colleagues from other departments, our efforts to involve other science departments in experimental design have met with limited success. To involve chemistry and biology faculty we are requiring geoscience experimental design teams to have a faculty mentor from geography, math, or science. The restriction is that it cannot be the professor teaching the course. The purposes of this requirement are,

  1. so students get some coaching and encouragement with working through the design phase.
  2. that students get the experience of reaching out for advice
  3. that students meet other faculty in the sciences
  4. to expose other faculty to the HAB and its possibilities.

Keys to Success



Preflight: Flight path predictions are made beginning days before the flight using freely available online software:

During the HAB flight: Three independent tracking systems are employed on board the HAB. This level of redundancy reduces the lilkihood that student payloads will be lost.

  1. A 900 MHz proprietary tracking software sold by Stratostar Corp (
  2. Automated Packet Reporting System (aprs), transmitted in a frequency band of HAM radio. This tracking is collected and relayed by HAM repeater towers, and can be viewed by anyone with an internet connection at To use this system, one must acquire a HAM radio license.
  3. SPOT GPS. Made for hikers, this small, lightweight unit attaches anywhere to the HAB payload, and displays the HAB position on a website map:

Equipment and HAB programs in general

We have made many purchase from Stratostar corporation. Although this is not the only resource for HAB equipment, this company can fit-out, educate, and guide anyone new to HAB through their first flight: