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'Mythbusters' elevates Derry classroom experience

| Tuesday, May 14, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Derry Area teacher Brian Clawson prepares the payload for the weather balloon launched by the 'Mythbusters' class.
Student Hayden Norris holds the weather balloon launched by the 'Mythbusters' class.
The wather balloon launched by the 'Mythbusters' class sails away.
The weather balloon launched by Derry Area 'Mythbusters' class reached an altitude of more than 20 miles.

After weeks of preparing equipment, studying air currents and calculating temperature changes, when the “Mythbusters” class at Derry Area High School released a 6-foot-wide weather balloon into the sky, there was a moment of panic.

Senior Hayden Norris said the helium-filled experiment — so sensitive to bursting that students had to wear gloves to handle it — took off from the football field, but wind conditions pushed it down and got it stuck on a fence.

“My heart just dropped,” he said. “I thought the balloon popped.”

Thankfully, it didn't, and the second launch went as planned. “It finally just went straight up, straight up in the sky,” Norris said.

The class, taught by Brian Clawson, is a half-year, project-based elective course.

Clawson said he allows the students to brainstorm ideas they'd like to try, which so far this year have included testing the decomposition rate of fast-food sandwiches, the creation of Archimedes' solar rays and the launch of the weather balloon.

“They were very interested in being able to create and design their own projects,” Clawson said. “We don't necessarily have a set curriculum as long as we practice and research the science that goes into it.”

Projects such as the weather balloon have helped students see how the scientific process works firsthand with trial and error, said senior Neil Byers.

“It was a sense of accomplishment to see it the whole way through and see it work the way it did,” he said.

The class put two cameras and a GPS unit inside a small cooler attached to the bottom of the balloon. They added handwarmers to the contents of the cooler to ward off the high-altitude cold temperatures.

Students alerted the FAA of the project and waited as the balloon rose an estimated 125,000 to 150,000 feet, Clawson said. The class lost GPS contact with it because of high wind speeds, then after two hours they were notified it was in Mt. Airy, Md., 90 miles away.

Clawson said they estimated it might land somewhere near Chambersburg or Shippensburg, but when the balloon expanded as far as it could —about 32 feet in diameter — and finally popped before falling to earth, it was 210 miles away in Smyrna, Del.

Clawson and another teacher planned to find the balloon remnants that night, so they drove to the small town and enlisted the help of the volunteer fire department to find the exact location — atop a 65-foot tree, one of the only trees within a two-mile radius.

“Of course, we had to hit it,” Clawson joked.

After the balloon was retrieved, examination of the photos it gathered from more than 20 miles high were impressive, showing tiny white clouds below and the glowing blue curve of the Earth.

“I didn't know what to expect, really,” said senior Jake Hayman. “I didn't know it would go that high or what the images would look like.”

The class, open to seniors, juniors and sophomores, is planned again for next year, but projects could vary with the new group of 50 students.

Hayman said that no matter the subject, he thinks the science is more accessible through projects than lectures.

“It helps you understand some of this stuff because it's more hands-on, rather than sitting and taking notes,” he said.

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or

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