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ECC Students Experiment with High Altitude Balloon

It took two days of searching, but a group of Edgecombe Community Colleges students found an unmanned balloon that had soared to the edge of space and plummeted back to Earth.

Part of the college’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) program, the high altitude balloon launch earlier this month was dubbed “critECCly stable.” Edgecombe Community College was among 10 community colleges in North Carolina to compete in the balloon challenge.

Students with baloon

From left, Edgecombe Community College students Chris Nalepka and Sebastian Uran Munoz, Information Technology Instructor Tim Boyd, Edgecombe Early College High School student Jilianne Leary, and Physics/Astronomy Instructor Rebecca Stamilio Ehret find the ECC balloon payload that was the focus of a recent NASA/N.C. Space Grant High Altitude Balloon Competition.

“We had a diverse group,” says Rebecca Stamilio Ehret, physics/astronomy instructor and project coordinator. “The experience our students received in a real-world and exciting project was invaluable. And they got lots of experience in teamwork.”

After Edgecombe Community College received a $23,000 grant from NASA and the N.C. Space Grant in September 2015, Stamilio Ehret put together a team of eight students to work on the project – from the fields of engineering, nursing, environmental science, computer science, and others.

Students on the team were Jilianne Leary, James Patrick Philips, Chris Nalepka, Genesis Munguia Valencia, Sebastian Uran Munoz, Jordan Bottoms, Dan Stroud, and Isaac Carlos. Instructors Tim Boyd, Alma Bracete, and Doug Parrish also were a part of the project.

The balloons’ payloads of each of the 10 colleges included required equipment that would collect such data as compass readings, temperature, altitude, and barometric pressure. Then each school could choose equipment for a secondary payload.

“We knew from the beginning we wanted to do a biological experiment,” Stamilio Ehret says.

Nursing student Genesis Munguia Valencia came up with the idea to look at how human blood cells change at high altitude.

“Often, astronauts have anemia when they return from space,” explains Patrick Philips, a computer technology student who handled the software programming on the project. “NASA is trying to figure out why, so we installed a camera and a microscope to take pictures of the blood in flight.”

In addition to the microscope camera and data sensor equipment, Edgecombe Community College’s balloon also included a GoPro camera and an exterior still camera to take time-lapse photos.

After months of planning, the colleges launched their balloons on April 9 at Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory. The ECC group tracked their balloon throughout the day through GPS sensors onboard until it landed somewhere near Barbecue, a small community in Harnett County. It had climbed to between 70,000 and 80,000 feet above the Earth.

After searching for several hours, the group abandoned the hunt for a few days before returning and finding the balloon in a field behind a row of trees near a farm.

“We’re happy,” Stamilio Ehret assures. “The sensors took the data, the GoPro took video, and we have some nice space photos and a video of the launch.

“We were a little disappointed because the external camera turned off before launch and the microscope camera turned off early on, but we realize that part of the process of conducting scientific experiments is the possibility that things won’t go perfectly.”

Without the camera and because the blood had deteriorated by the time they found the balloon, the group was unable to analyze the blood. Regardless, students in the group say the project was a success.

“I got to work with a variety of people, and it taught me a lot,” says Jilianne Leary, an Edgecombe Early College High School student. “Everyone brought their own strengths to the group.”

Philips says the project was eye-opening for him.

“It gave me a chance to see how software can integrate with electronics,” he says. “It’s been a thrilling experience and wonderful seeing through a collaborative effort how a variety of disciplines interconnect.”

Stamilio Ehret says Edgecombe Community College plans to apply for a grant next year so students can participate in the competition again.

“Being a part of the program this year enabled us to not only learn from the experience but also to purchase equipment which we will be able to use again next year.”