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Teaching Students Science and Engineering with High Altitude Balloons and ChipKits

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Aerospace Division Technical Session 2

Tagged Division


Page Count


Page Numbers

24.1171.1 - 24.1171.5



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Paper Authors


Matthew Nelson Iowa State University Orcid 16x16

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My background and interests are in embedded systems and radio communications. I have a B.S. in electrical engineering and will be completing my M.S. in computer engineering in 2014. My research is focused on software-defined radios and in applications for remote sensing.
Currently, I serve as the program coordinator for the Make to Innovate program at Iowa State University in the aerospace engineering department. This program provides our students with an opportunity to do hands-on projects and includes everything from underwater to space projects. One of those projects is our high-altitude balloon program, which I have been working with students on for the past eight years and provides a low-cost vehicle for learning about engineering and science by solving real-world problems. In addition to my duties at Iowa State University, I also serve as the president of the Stratospheric Ballooning Association. This organization aims to promote, educate, and encourage collaboration for high-altitude balloon projects.

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Teaching students science and engineering with high altitude balloons and ChipKitsA low cost method for introducing students to science and engineering is the use of high altitudeballoons.  These balloons are capable of reaching near space altitudes, in many cases above 30 kmabove sea level.  Use of high altitude balloons introduce students to science through a variety ofexperiments that can be carried out on these missions.  Engineering is taught through the design, buildand fly concept where students design critical components of the system, build them and then test theconcept through flights.  Because the flight costs of high altitude balloons are low, usually between$400­$600 USD, multiple flights can be carried out throughout a school year.  This low cost allows usto give students access to near space conditions at a fraction of the cost for a normal space flight suchas a cubesat.One of the key components on a high altitude balloon flight is to be able to be able to record flight data,communicate with the ground station and control key systems on the spacecraft.  One option is theArduino, which is recognizable by many students and is easy to learn.  The ChipKit however waschosen as it offers a more powerful 32­bit processor and additional I/Os while keeping the sameArduino form factor and programming language.  This allowed the students to use this for morecomplicated missions and to standardize on a common hardware platform.  By maintaining the sameArduino form factor, we are also able to take advantage of a number of existing shields that allow us tocarry out a variety of missions.The majority of the students that I work with our aerospace engineering students.  By using high altitudeballoon along with the ChipKit I am able to introduce to my students some key aerospace conceptswith designing a system that can survive near space conditions and carry out its mission.  In addition, Ican use the ChipKit platform to introduce basic programming skills as well as basic electrical concepts.This gives our students a better appreciation for these topics.

Nelson, M. (2014, June), Teaching Students Science and Engineering with High Altitude Balloons and ChipKits Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--23104

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