Big balloon flies high above Tualatin High School in eclipse test
When a big crowd gathers around the football field and track at Tualatin High School, that usually means the Timberwolves are taking on a league rival.
But on Monday, May 8, it wasn't football players or track and field stars that people came to watch. It was a large rubber balloon, lofted into the wild blue yonder on a 100-foot tether — a dry run for the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse that will block out the Sun for more than two minutes above Salem and other areas along its "path of totality."
The Moon will cast a shadow as it occludes the Sun, and that shadow will pass through the United States on a path cutting straight through Oregon on the morning of the eclipse. It is that shadow, explained team leader Francis Bartholomew, that students from the Oregon Institute of Technology, along with more than 50 other teams across the country, will track from the sky using high-altitude balloons and camera equipment.
Leif Taylor, an assistant physics professor at the Oregon Institute of Technology who is advising the students, said the overarching goal is to promote interest in space. The students in Oregon Tech's Gravity and Space (GRASP) Club in Wilsonville who are part of the eclipse project are already invested, of course, but the public demonstration on Monday and the club's partnership with Tualatin High provide opportunities to reach a broader audience of potential scientists, engineers, coders and mathematicians.
"This alone, the livestreaming, isn't a scientific research project," Taylor said. "It's engagement with universities and high schools and getting students excited about NASA."
The connection between Oregon Tech and Tualatin High was made through the South Metro-Salem STEM Partnership, and the effort is funded in part through the Oregon Space Grant Consortium and the Oregon Tech Foundation.
Jill Hubbard, who teaches engineering and computer science at Tualatin High, and Taylor said they knew each other previously through the South Metro-Salem STEM Partnership.
The core group of high school students involved in the project are members of Girls Who Code, a new club at Tualatin High that Hubbard moderates.
"I have the best students," Hubbard said. "They are amazing."
Elaine Meslow, a junior at Tualatin High, started the club this winter. She had been active in a Girls Who Code club at Sherwood High School — the groups are affiliated with a national nonprofit organization by the same name — and decided she wanted to bring its mission of promoting and empowering women in the field of computer science to her own school.
"It's mostly as a way of providing environments for people that might feel uncomfortable going in more of a male-dominated STEM field," Meslow explained.
Meslow and fellow Girls Who Code member Rachel McWhirter, a senior at Tualatin High, are excited about getting the chance to work with Oregon Tech's GRASP Club on the Eclipse Ballooning Project.
"It's just kind of amazing that it's so close to us, and it's such a rare experience," said Meslow.
"This is just really cool," said McWhirter, who noted that this is the first partnership between her high school and a college that she has known of. "It's a really awesome opportunity for both the high-schoolers and the elementary kids."
The Girls Who Code students and others from Hubbard's classes led mini-lessons and workshops for that last group of students present for Monday's test balloon launch: fifth-graders from neighboring Edward Byrom Elementary School, who watched excitedly as the big white balloon lifted off from the football field at noon.
"We wanted to expose all our students to what the solar eclipse is, so we wanted to make sure that we had an event that was available for everybody to attend, as well as reaching out to our elementary school, sister school, Byrom, down the street," Hubbard said. "The whole idea is — from my perspective, anyway — is to be more inclusive with STEM in general, to make sure that all young people have an opportunity to see the excitement around science and math, and applications of science and math, and what it really means to the world."
"It's really good for younger kids to see how STEM can be involved, and that this is happening in the first place," Meslow said, adding, "I actually went to Byrom, and I don't think we did anything like this. … I would have thought this was amazing if I had done this."
Hubbard credited her students with putting together the lesson plans to educate the Byrom fifth-graders.
"They really planned everything for this event," she said.
Monday's test run went well for the ballooning team, but the real event will be the Aug. 21 launch.
Taylor said the plan is for the GRASP Club to launch their balloon — which will be even bigger than the one they test-flew Monday — from Detroit Lake State Park, monitoring the path of the eclipse from east of Salem.
By Mark Miller
Assistant Editor, The Times