Like many of my generation, life changed a bit when Sputnik was launched in October, 1957. While many of my classmates were interested in rocketry, my own interest was more in the field of electronics – the instruments needed to make measurements of temperature, pressure, and other data that was then sent back to Earth by radio. Because I was an amateur radio operator at the time (K9SRW) who built all my own equipment, this was a natural extension of then-current interests. I remember walking part way home from high school just so I could stop at a local Army surplus store packed with boxes of resistors, capacitors, and other components including the transistors needed to build amplifiers, oscillators, and other circuits one might need.
Since, as I said, rocketry was not my goal, I looked for any way to get a project off the earth, even if it didn’t go into orbit. As a result, in 1961, the method I chose (helium-filled weather balloons) was not only inexpensive, it could be used to carry a pretty heavy payload (two kg or so). With my focus on the electronics, I built the transmitter, and the attachments needed to measure altitude, temperature, air pressure, luminosity, and to send the legally required Identification signal. All of these circuits were modular, and a lot of time was spent making sure everything worked. My father provided a photographic plate to see if I could detect cosmic rays (assuming I would get the plate back from the experiment so it could be developed.)
The finished payload was a cube about 30 cm on a side, and I built two of them – one in Styrofoam for launch, and one in clear plastic for testing and display for a science fair at my high school. I called the experiment Project HiBall (for high balloon, of course) and on launch day I just hoped everything worked.
Fortunately, the experiment was a success. The balloon headed west, and landed a day later on a farm in Iowa where a kind farmer found it and sent it to me. The data was not earth-shattering, but the experiments mostly worked as planned and the resulting science fair project was well-received, taking me to the State finals. While my interest in STEM subjects had already been formed, there is little question that this project strengthened these interests, setting the trajectory for my continued education.
The reason I shared this experience with you is because, today, even more amazing options are available. The first technology to mention is the CubeSat- small (10 cm/side, about 1 kg)) satellites for student projects that stay in low-earth orbits for about a year (www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cubesats/). While most of the projects are done by college students, there is a special opportunity to expand this access to high school students. This project (ArduSat – http://www.ardusat.com) is based on the popular Arduino board used to send and receive data from all kinds of sensors and actuators. While most Arduino projects reside here on Earth, the Ardusat system lets students design and test experiments in their classroom that can then be sent to an Arduino-based CubeSat for testing in space. From my historical perspective, this is staggering!
The Arduino board connects to a computer and has numerous inputs and outputs for both digital and analog data. The Ardusat student kit includes some special sensors for luminosity, temperature, an accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, barometer, UV sensor, infrared thermopile and other data sources. The whole kit is only $150 which is a bargain considering the specialized sensors it contains. While experiments can be designed and tested here on Earth, finished Arduino programs can be sent 450 km up to the Ardusat where experiments can be done and the data sent to Earth.
This goes way beyond what I was doing in 1961 in two very important ways. First, the experiments are done on an orbiting satellite. Second, the projects can be done by students without them having to design all the sensors and other equipment themselves. This has the effect of democratizing the endeavor, bringing an amazing opportunity for STEM education to students everywhere.
In addition to the hardware kits, Ardusat also has a lot of activities and experiments that can be downloaded and explored – including tutorials on the hardware itself. This material is generally released under a Creative Commons copyright, making it perfect for free classroom use.
In addition to the tutorials and other resources, the activities are keyed to both the Next Generation Science and the Common Core Standards. This adds value in that teachers can see how Ardusat projects tie into the standards they are expected to support without having to wade through the massive standards documents themselves.
There is no question in my mind that the project I did ages ago helped guide me into the sciences. What excites me more is that projects like Ardusat will achieve this result for thousands of kids who well then go on to invent our future.