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UW Education Students Support ‘Out of This World’ Experience for Wyoming Pupils

December 6, 2019
teenagers outside with a very large balloon
UW Lab School students prepare to launch a high-altitude balloon Nov. 15, part of the Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium’s High-Altitude Balloon Program. (UW Photo)

Jeff Bell, of Big Piney, and Tyra Relaford, of Sheridan, two University of Wyoming secondary education majors, are supporting the science education of middle and high school students in Wyoming as members of the 2019 LIFT (Learning to Integrate Fundamentals through Teaching) project cohort.

The LIFT project was developed by the Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium’s High-Altitude Balloon Program, with the support of a three-year National Science Foundation grant. LIFT brings together UW undergraduate students with science, engineering and education backgrounds for the purpose of developing authentic K-12 scientific projects and curricula for high-altitude ballooning.

“The LIFT project is helping us take our balloon program to new heights by engaging undergraduate students in developing ready-to-go ballooning projects that provide pre- and post-launch, standards-based activities and curricula for teachers,” says Shawna McBride, director of the NASA Space Grant program. “This provides a hands-on, interdisciplinary learning experience for our undergraduate students and a more in-depth and well-rounded STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) enrichment activity for K-12 students in the state.”

K-12 teachers and students in the partner schools benefit from the program by developing a real-life engineering design challenge and by having the curriculum available to use in subsequent years. The activities and near-peer mentors can help stoke an interest in the K-12 participants to pursue STEM fields. The preservice educators gain experience developing lesson plans, leading a classroom of K-12 students and increasing their scientific literacy.

Education majors work as part of two interdisciplinary teams and are each matched with a teacher at a partner school in Wyoming. Bell’s team was composed of Mary Block, a physics/astronomy major; Garrett Burrows, a mechanical engineering major; and Jim Stith, a science instructor at Newcastle High School. Relaford was joined by Jacob Plowman, a physics/astronomy major; Josh Crips, an electrical engineering major; and Teresa Strube, Andy Pannell and Theresa Williams, middle school teachers from the UW Lab School.

woman standing outside
UW student Tyra Relaford, of Sheridan, led a high-altitude balloon project with the UW Lab School.

Last spring, the UW students in the 2019 cohort began brainstorming various balloon project ideas that explore scientific and engineering questions or challenges. After they decided on the project they were going to pursue, the group began planning the curricula they would deliver at the partner schools to support the classes as they design the payload, participate in data collection and analyze the data after the launches.

Developing these lessons and activities is the primary focus of the cohort. During this time, the expertise of the education students is extremely valuable to the team. The undergraduate teams create lesson plans for three activities: pre-launch, the launch day activities and one activity post-launch. Each pre- and post-launch lesson is designed to meet national Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and Wyoming science content and performance standards.

“Trina Kilty is working to help our LIFT students connect the projects they are developing to NGSS and Wyoming science content and performance standards,” McBride says. “This is an important component of the project, because we want teachers to be able to easily incorporate LIFT projects into their standards-based STEM teaching and engage students in hands-on projects.”

In addition to mentoring the students, Kilty, a postdoctoral research associate for the LIFT project, gathers data to conduct educational research for the LIFT project. The data collected by Kilty will help measure whether the project is effective at increasing retention in STEM fields; providing an opportunity to practice teaching a STEM lesson in an authentic setting; and increasing the scientific literacy of all involved.

During the fall semester, the teams of UW students work with LIFT mentors and their partner K-12 educators to finalize the development of their lesson plans and activities so they are ready to be implemented in the classroom. They also test and revise the design of the balloon payloads to help ensure they survive the flight to near space.

The teams travel to their partner schools weekly in October to deliver the lessons to the students and prepare for the launches. They again journey to the partner schools for the launch day and to analyze data with the students post-launch.

man with very large ballon beside him
UW student Jeff Bell, of Big Piney, led a high-altitude balloon project with Newcastle High School. (UW Photo)

Bell and his team in Newcastle are exploring what types of materials work best at shielding radiation at high altitudes. The Newcastle students launched their balloon Nov. 6. It drifted for four hours and 22 minutes, reached 101,580 feet in altitude and traveled over 122 miles. A video of the launch is available at; data from the flight are available at

“We've been working on this unit plan since January, so to see it finally play out was a dream,” Bell says. “Any classroom experience will benefit me as a future instructor. It was a great opportunity to practice my classroom management skills and better learn how to keep students on task.”

Relaford and her team from the UW Lab School worked to investigate the effects of high-altitude weather conditions on the speed of sound as you increase in altitude. The students enjoyed the successful launch of their balloon from UW’s Prexy’s Pasture Nov. 15, when their balloon reached an altitude of 88,670 feet and traveled 52 miles during its three hour, 17-minute flight. View additional flight data at and a launch video at

“Working with the students at the lab school was a great opportunity,” Relaford says. “My experience with the LIFT program has given me tools and great ideas for how to incorporate STEM into my future English classroom.”

The teams are encouraged to publish their finalized lesson plans to This database allows educators from around the world to implement the plans developed by the LIFT cohort from UW and provides the opportunity to be published as an undergraduate student.

For more information about the LIFT project or the High-Altitude Balloon Program at UW, go to the Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium’s website at

Newcastle High School students who participated are: Gavin Day, Mathew Drake, Jason Greene, Callie Hiser, Robert Humes, Aryana Kohlbrand, Olivia McVay, Kahlyn Messmer, Autumn Mills, Leo Orban, Zade Orsborn, Slade Roberson, Nickalena Schantle, Isabella Spencer, Rianna Varner, Jonah Vik and Neil Whitney.

UW Lab School students who participated are: Bode Anderson, Jayden Bybee, Lucas Dillon, Dom Eberle, Carlito Garcia, Tryan Gill, Michael Harry, Oscar Knievel, Aliye Marquez, Beckett McCoy, Gabe Myers, Henry Nicholson, Levi Nicholson, David Novogrodsky, Declan O’Connor, Ayala Paul, Sean Prather, Zane Rothfuss, Alaric Schleicher, Rex Siceloff and Jazz Soule.

Additional collaborators on the research portion of the LIFT project are Associate Professors Andrea Burrows and Kate Welsh from the College of Education, who also serve as co-principal investigators on the grant. Also serving as a co-PI is Kevin Kilty, associate lecturer in the College of Engineering and Applied Science.

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