The group of Bangor middle-schoolers aims to track how air pollution and changes at various altitudes using a high-altitude balloon.
Margaret Pietrak, a seventh-grade science teacher at William S. Cohen School in Bangor, stands with a team of students who won a national experiment design competition offered by NASA. The group aims to track how air pollution and changes at various altitudes using a high-altitude balloon. Credit: Kathleen O'Brien / BDN

A team of Bangor middle-schoolers will participate in a national program offered by NASA in which students will design an experiment that will be attached to a high-altitude balloon.

Six seventh-graders at William S. Cohen School, overseen by their science teacher, will use the program to learn how air quality changes through different levels of Earth’s atmosphere. They hope this information would then be used to help reduce air pollution and stop climate change

The Bangor group is one of 60 groups of middle- and high-schoolers selected to participate in the NASA TechRise Student Challenge administered by Future Engineers, an organization that offers free challenges for K-12 students nationwide.

The William S. Cohen School team has the only students from Maine selected to participate this year.

The challenge allows middle- and high-school students across the county to propose something they were interested in researching with the help of a high-altitude balloon. Other teams’ experiments include topics such as whether the efficacy of solar panels changes in various altitudes and whether plant seedlings are viable at 70,000 feet. 

Margaret Pietrak, a seventh-grade science teacher at William S. Cohen School, said she heard about the contest last October and brought it to her students four days before the proposal submission deadline. The six students involved worked together after school and over the weekend to develop their experiment idea. 

“The fact that they jumped on the opportunity with such a short window of time and articulated what their idea was with sketches and an explanation of what their data will benefit is what was so impressive to me,” Pietrak said. 

The teams with the winning proposals, which were announced last week, received a 3D printed box their experiment will sit in and $1,500 to create the technology that will collect data for their research. The box will then be attached to the high-altitude helium balloon, which will be launched from either South Dakota or Arizona this summer. 

In its proposal, the Bangor team outlined plans to attach a tiny camera and sensors that track ozone, carbon dioxide and methane gas levels to a circuit board. They have until May to construct it. 

Once launched, the balloon will ascend roughly 70,000 feet — higher than commercial airplanes go — and float for at least four hours before coming down. The experiments will collect data during the ascent and float time. 

The competition organizers will track and recover the experiments once they’ve landed and mail them back to students to be analyzed. 

The students also will meet with an engineer mentor once a week while they construct their experiment. 

In their proposal, the students said they want to gather this information to see whether pollution gathers and stays over more populated areas, or if it moves and diffuses through the atmosphere. They hypothesize higher levels of pollution will be concentrated in lower altitudes over higher populated areas. 

“Each one of those are real experiments that a professional scientist would do,” Pietrak said. “Students are amazing, whether they’re a first-grader or a senior in high school, each one of them is creative and has their own talents. If you listen, you can learn a lot from them.” 

Pietrak said she “gets goosebumps” whenever she thinks about how much her students will learn in the coming months and how their experiment could help the future. Her students’ talent and ambition are also a testament to their generation who “can do some amazing things.” 

The information gathered could then be used to determine where pollution elimination efforts should be centered to reduce climate change and subsequent changes in weather, they wrote in their proposal. 

“Air pollution is a very big problem on the Earth, and limiting, reducing or ending it would be a great help to find ways to reduce climate change,” they wrote in their proposal. “We want to be the generation that changes the world for the better, to make a greener and cleaner world.”

Avatar photo

Kathleen O'Brien

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...