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‘Spreading the STEM gospel’

A high altitude balloon team from Ernie Pyle Middle School watches their payload ascend during the second day of the Near Space Challenge at West Mesa High School on Tuesday morning. (Maddy Hayden/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — With dozens of brightly colored hot air balloons from the International Balloon Fiesta as a backdrop, students from 26 schools launched balloons of their own from West Mesa High School on Tuesday morning.

Within minutes, though, these balloons were soaring tens of thousands of feet above the passenger-laden hot air balloons nearby.

The three-day Near Space Challenge took place Monday through Wednesday featuring students from 28 New Mexico schools competing in a variety of events, some of which involved high-altitude balloons filled with helium.

Tuesday’s challenge called for accuracy: Students were to use data to prepare a balloon that would land in a specified area near Galisteo.

“The whole goal here is given the winds and the predictions, the weight of your payload and the balloon fill, how close can you get this to land to that point,” said Mark Hendricks, naval science instructor at West Mesa High School’s Navy JROTC program and Near Space Challenge organizer.

Of the nine teams that participated in the landing accuracy challenge, Hendricks said, teams from Valencia and Los Lunas high schools landed the closest to the target, but the winner won’t be known until closer measurements can be made.

The competition also allowed West Mesa High School students to try out the “cut-down” devices they’ve spent months designing and 3-D printing.

“There’s nothing commercially available that fits that bill,” said Chris Speck, a seventh-grade teacher at Garfield Middle School, who led a team in the competition. “What they’re trying to do is invent something that anybody that does high-altitude ballooning can use.”

The “cut-down” device is programmed to burn through the cord attaching the balloon to the payload of data-recording equipment once the balloon reaches a certain altitude.

This was the challenge’s second year.

The Near Space Challenge seeks to provide students with a fun and educational way of learning STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) skills.

“We’re doing this to spread the STEM gospel,” Hendricks said.