Science curriculum coverage from high altitude balloon project

Science curriculum coverage from high altitude balloon project

 By Jon Chippindall


In my previous post I was please to report on the successful launch of the Manchester Meteor High Altitude balloon which reached approximately 90000 feet and took some stunning photos of Earth. As a follow up to the project, this post details which elements of the upper Key Stage 2 2014 science curriculum can be targeted, and how, by taking part in this project.

Working Scientifically


  • planning different types of scientific enquiries to answer questions, including recognising and controlling variables where necessary
  • taking measurements, using a range of scientific equipment, with increasing accuracy and precision
  • recording data and results of increasing complexity using scientific diagrams and labels, classification keys, tables, and bar and line graphs
  • using test results to make predictions to set up further comparative and fair tests
  • reporting and presenting findings from enquiries, including conclusions, causal relationships and explanations of results, in oral and written forms such as displays and other presentations

Pupils could complete ‘drop tests’ with different sized parachutes to measure descent speeds (or time to land from a set height if the link between speed, distance and time is not introduced). Descent speed for the payload is important as if it is too slow the payload is likely to drift greater distances from the launch point and if it is too quick it risks being damaged on landing or damaging things, or people, it lands on! Pupils could plot descent speeds for various sized parachutes and use these graphs to predict the descent rates for sizes not tested. Such sizes could subsequently be tested to check prediction accuracy.

Another investigation could be set up to investigate the best material to make the payload from. Children could test the impact strength of different foams by dropping them or dropping weights on them and measure indentations. Pupils could then discuss that stronger, more protective materials may be heavier so it is important to compromise which satisfies the design considerations of durability and weight. This ‘theme’ of finding an optimal compromise for several design considerations is fundamental to engineering problems time and time again.

  • using simple models to describe scientific ideas

Both of the investigations above provide significant scope for pupils to describe their scientific thinking drawing on models they have previously been taught. They could, for example, consider what they understand to make up a gas in order to think about why a larger parachute slows the payload descent. What is air resistance and how does it come about? Likewise, why is the payload falling to Earth? Pupils could also consider their knowledge of the model of a solid to consider why some materials are stronger than others – is there a link here to why some materials are heavier than others?

In addition to the experiments described above, the balloon project provides further scope for pupils to articulate their scientific understanding through simple models:

They may, for example, consider why the balloon expands when filled with helium?

What forces are acting on the balloon?

Why does the helium provide lift?

Why doesn’t the person holding the balloon float off? Are the forces balanced when the balloon is tethered? What about when it is released?

Why will the balloon not rise vertically? What does this tell use about the forces acting on the balloon? (And why doesn’t it come down vertically too?)

Properties and changes of materials


  • compare and group together everyday materials based on evidence from comparative and fair tests, including their hardness, solubility, transparency, conductivity (electrical and thermal), and response to magnets
  • give reasons, based on evidence from comparative and fair tests, for the particular uses of everyday materials, including metals, wood and plastic

Knowledge of materials and their properties is important to complete this project successfully. Pupils could consider each of the components in turn and think about how the materials’ properties make it suitable for the job. Why is the balloon latex? Why is the parachute nylon? A fun activity here would be for pupils to redesign the balloon with each component made from an entirely unsuitable material – would a concrete payload with tissue parachute work!?

Earth and Space:


  • describe the Sun, Earth and Moon as approximately spherical bodies
  • use the idea of the Earth’s rotation to explain day and night

I don’t think I can think of a better way to demonstrate to pupils that the Earth is spherical than by showing them! And this is exactly what can be achieved by sending a camera to 90000 feet above the Earth. As will have seen from the shots we got back, the curvature of the Earth is clear J

Likewise, from this perspective, pupils can see the Sun as another spherical body. Furthermore, from the perspective of space, it is easier to imagine that we (Earth) are rotating around the Sun as opposed (as it appears form Earth) that the Sun travels around us – and consequently across the sky.


  • explain that unsupported objects fall towards the Earth because of the force of gravity acting between the Earth and the falling object
  • identify the effects of air resistance, water resistance and friction, that act between moving surfaces

Please refer above for how the forces objectives can be explored through a science investigation considering the forces acting upon the balloon, parachute and payload.





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