Steamboat elementary students watch weather balloon launch |

Steamboat elementary students watch weather balloon launch

— After they said goodbye Tuesday morning to a latex balloon that towed a small box armed with a metal data-gathering antenna, a group of Soda Creek Elementary School students looked up at a mostly clear sky and squinted and pointed at the instrument for several minutes until it disappeared.

Then, they had several questions.

"Where will it end up?" one student asked.

National Center for Atmospheric Research scientist Bill Brown predicted the vessel, which beamed humidity and temperature readings back down to a computer screen in front of the students, would pop after it grew to the size of a truck and would fall safely back to the ground somewhere near his laboratory in Boulder.

"What if a plane hits it?" asked another student.

Brown explained that the balloon was designed so that it could be sucked through a plane engine without causing any damage.

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With the help of Brown and two representatives from Storm Peak Laboratory in Steamboat Springs, the students were able to witness the launch of the weather balloon and how the precise data it collected 12 miles above the Earth's surface is used to forecast and study the weather.

"Weather is part of the fifth-grade standards in Colorado, so teachers are often asking us to come up with creative ways to get the kids excited about it," Storm Peak Laboratory Director Gannet Hallar said.

She said the weather balloon event she and other scientists put on at elementary schools in Steamboat each year does just that.

"The students were really excited about the balloons," she said after the launch. "It's something they can feel and touch. They love the hands-on approach."

Soda Creek fifth-grader Colton Sankey said he was impressed by what he saw forming on the computer monitor inside of Brown's truck, which was filled with gadgets used to monitor the weather.

As the latex balloon floated 60,000 feet above where Sankey and his classmates stood, red and blue lines showing the relative humidity and temperature inside several layers of clouds started to fluctuate on the monitor in front of him.

"It's amazing all of that data can be collected in one little box dangling from a balloon," Sankey said. When they peered carefully at the data, the students learned that atmospheric pressure decreases with altitude. They also got some insight into how temperatures are measured. Brown said the data from the balloon is used by the National Weather Service to develop forecasts. About 150 of the vessels are launched each day across the country, he said.

And as he prepared to go back to class, Sankey said the demonstration might influence his career path.

"I wouldn't mind this job," Sankey said as the scientists started setting up for the next class of students. "The weather is always changing, so you always get to learn."

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email

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