Space Age Wisdom

In October 2012, a parachute jumper took a leap of science and stepped off a platform from an altitude of close to 24 miles above the Earth’s surface, breaking the 1959 space jump record. The parachute jumper’s team helped him to reach these heights with a helium balloon attached to a space gondola/capsule. Because air density and temperature vary greatly with altitude in our atmosphere, the engineering team had to consider both the mass and strength of the materials used in construction of the entire high-altitude balloon. These materials needed to be safe and lightweight, and also be able to perform well in extreme cold conditions.

This 7th grade unit’s focus is the design of the balloon capsule and student teams are challenged to create a composite material that is capable of surpassing the space jump record due to its superior strength to mass ratio. Knowledge gained through research of both properties of the atmosphere and properties of composite materials are synthesized and applied while designing and creating sample composite materials. Through the use of a testing fixture, the teams will subject their composite materials to extreme conditions in order to test the material’s ability to withstand force under tensile and bending conditions. Teams record and analyze the test results, calculate strength to mass ratios, and determine the composite’s percent of change under these test conditions. Finally, teams compose a marketing proposal to persuade a potential sponsor company to fund the next potentially record-breaking space jump in order boost awareness and sales of its products. This world record will be possible because the company is being offered the use of the student team’s test results and improved composite material recommendations for the gondola/capsule. Students are required to support claims made in the letter with scientific evidence based on research and testing results gathered throughout this design challenge.

Students Explore:

  • Matter has specific physical properties (including density, volume, and mass), and consists of atoms that may be arranged in regular geometric patterns. Density can be defined as the amount of matter that is in a particular amount of space. If two objects have equal volume, but unequal mass, the one with greater mass is denser. If two objects have equal strength, but unequal mass, the material with the lower mass will have a greater strength to mass ratio, and therefore will have higher material performance.
  • The atmosphere has defined layers, each having distinct properties of air density, air pressure, temperature, and gas mixtures.
  • Ratios compare portions of changing quantities to other portions or to entire entities. Conversions allow cross-cultural and quantifiable relationships to excel with defined, universally accepted ratios. Use of equations can lead to graphical representations, connecting realistic comparisons with hypothetical and abstract knowledge.
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