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Hot air balloons: Teachers' STEM class projects go soaring away

June 27th, 2014 9:45 am by Nathan Baker

Hot air balloons: Teachers' STEM class projects go soaring away

A dozen teachers had lofty goals Thursday morning on the practice soccer fields at East Tennessee State University.

The group, taking part in an Advanced Aerospace Education Workshop sponsored by the Tennessee Department of Transportation, launched hot air balloons high over the grass turf, hoping to catch enough wind to propel them forward, but not so much that the fragile materials they were made of tore.

Bill Hemphill, associate professor in ETSU’s Department of Engineering Technology, Surveying and Digital Media and a leader of the workshop, said the 40-year-old program was designed to show the state’s teachers available careers in aeronautics and aerospace and teach them techniques to excite students about the opportunities.

“There are many opportunities available across the country, but even in our own state you’ve got a huge group of associations with jobs, from FedEx down in Memphis all the way to Bell Helicopters on our end,” Hemphill said.

The balloons launched Thursday were made by the teachers out of colored paper, then filled with hot air and set loose for a friendly flight-distance competition.

Hemphill said the demonstration, like the egg drop using group-made parachutes, can be easily replicated in a classroom setting to show students the real-life applications of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) lessons.

“Sometimes STEM subjects are perceived as boring,” he said. “If they could get out of the classroom and see how some of these things are used, I mean, how can anyone think launching hot air balloons is boring?”

Four colleges in the state host the workshops each year: ETSU, University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Middle Tennessee State University and the University of Memphis.

The Johnson City college’s program draws instructors from Hawkins to Unicoi County for beginner and advanced courses.

The advanced three-week workshop, which held the balloon demonstration Thursday, also included a trip to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, flight instruction time, visits from NASA scientists and certification for the teachers to request samples of moon rocks and meteorites — considered a rarity on terra firma — to use as teaching materials.

Teachers taking part in the course, when not chasing down errant paper balloons, said the lessons learned will be valuable to their students.

“I feel like I learned a lot that will help me in the classroom,” said Jeff Hobbs, a teacher at Rogersville’s Cherokee High School. “There are a variety of learning experiences here that we can use to demonstrate some of the principles we’re teaching.”

Hobbs added that the instructors for the workshop were experienced, professional and able to explain complex concepts so the non-engineers and the children they teach could understand.

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