'Spaceballs': RMS STEM students sent experiments to space inside ping pong balls

Jeff Bobo • May 24, 2018 at 3:00 PM

ROGERSVILLE — On Thursday, a group of 75 Rogersville Middle School STEM students will receive some tiny travelers that will teach them more about what life is like in outer space.

Among those tiny travelers are grapes, marshmallows, sponges and bouncy balls — that have gone where no grapes, marshmallows, sponges or bouncy balls have gone before. About 21 miles straight up.

On April 18-19, RMS teacher Leah Walters's STEM students cut open 75 ping pong balls, inserted a random item of their choosing, and then sealed that ping pong ball back up with tape.

The balls were then shipped to California based company JR Aeronautics which launched them into outer-space on a weather balloon on May 15, from Lovelock, Nevada.

Walter noted that her students have done a couple different engineering units in her STEM class this year such as civil engineering and architectural engineering, and the ping pong ball experiment was their aerospace unit.

"We learned what the conditions are like in space, such as what happens in a vacuum, and what happens in those really low temperatures," Walters told the Times-News Tuesday. "We watched interviews with astronauts in the space station, talked about aerodynamics, and really delved into the study of space. Then, as the culminating part of the unit, first I asked them, hypothetically, if you had the chance to send something into space, what would you send, and why. What do you think would happen, and how would you know if it happened."

Walters added, "Then I told them we were going to actually do it."

Student could stick anything they wanted inside their ping pong ball. The objective was to create a hypothesis on what affect the condityions of outer space would have on their item.

"Some of them sent bouncy balls like you get out of the quarter gumball machines to see if they retain their bounce after they've been exposed to the cold temperatures and almost vacuum conditions," Walters said. "Some students sent marshmallows to see if they expanded and then freeze-dried. That was their hypothesis. Some people sent sponges. Some people sent seeds. I had a wide variety. Some other project example were insulin, a grape, slime and a sponge."

Walters added, "They were really curious about what would happen to these items in near vacuum conditions. One group tested the ping pong ball itself, but the rest cut open the ping pong ball and put their experiment inside it.

On May 15 the balloon carrying RMS's ping pong balls and experiments exceeded 111,000 feet in elevation. When JR Aeronautics popped the balloon, sending it back to Earth, the balloon landed about 13 miles from where it was launched in Nevada.

Althought the ping pong balls are in the mail on their way to Rogersville, as of Wednesday they hadn't arrived at school yet. Students were supposed to check out their experiments Thursday when they came to pick up their report cards.

If they haven't arrived by Thursday Walters will arrange a time for students to pick them up this summer.

She added, "I hope they learned something about what conditions are like in space, and ultimately that they can do cool stuff like this too, and they can learn through having fun."