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Students Reach New Heights in Competition

PCC's team launches its balloon from a parking lot at Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory.

WINTERVILLE—Pitt Community College math and physics students topped their counterparts from nine other North Carolina community colleges to bring home the prize for highest altitude in the 2015-16 High Altitude Balloon Competition.

Held April 9 in Hickory, the competition was a product of a collaboration between NASA and the N.C. Space Grant Program aimed at enhancing hands-on experiential learning.

Six PCC students and four instructors spent more than 20 weeks developing a payload consisting of sensors to detect temperature, along with ultraviolet, infrared, and visible light before attaching it to a high-altitude balloon. They launched the payload into the upper atmosphere, where it also retrieved photos and videos from the edge of space.

The balloons were launched from Catawba Valley Community College during the competition, which was made possible by a $20,000-grant from NASA to each participating college. Event organizers say it’s a win-win, as NASA benefits by adding their cameras and sensors to each team’s balloon.

PCC’s team balloon reached 103,202 feet (19.5 miles) and entered “near space” before bursting, sending the payload back to earth. Using radio and GPS trackers, students were able to recover the payload a little more than six hours after liftoff.

PCC Physics and Astronomy Instructor Joy Moses-Hall said the competition went well beyond learning how to make a balloon fly.

“The students not only had to make an instrument fit [physically and electronically] into a larger system, but they had to become a human system that could carry off a launch and retrieval,” she said. “They were required to do everything from earning an amateur radio license to testing equipment for low pressure and impact response to chasing the balloon halfway across the state. They did an amazing job.”

This is the first year PCC students have participated in the competition. Joining them were students representing Catawba Valley, Central Piedmont, Craven, Durham Technical, Edgecombe, Guilford Technical, Randolph, Rowan-Cabarrus and Southwestern community colleges.

PCC’s Math and Physics Department is part of the Arts and Sciences Division. Many graduates move on to four-year institutions and pursue engineering careers, like atmospheric science – a field expected to see nearly 10 percent growth, as reported by the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

More than 70 percent of PCC graduates stay local and reinvest in the eastern North Carolina economy.