News: 3 … 2 … 1 … Science!
Story by Petty Officer 1st Class Nick Ameen
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. - From the cockpit to the classroom, one Coast Guard pilot is using his aviation background to get students excited about science.
Lt. Jeremy McKenzie, an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter pilot from Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City, N.J., championed a project at Ellison School in Vineland, N.J., to launch a weather balloon into the stratosphere.
McKenzie and his project co-pilot, Michael Sormanti, a parent of an Ellison School student, assembled the weather balloon, which included a data-gathering sensor, a GPS device, a signaling device and a high-definition camera. The weather balloon also featured the school’s mascot, the Ellison Eagle, which was handcrafted by art teacher Kara Rossi.
The project, which was several months in the making, came to a successful completion May 20, 2013. The weather balloon was launched at 9:50 a.m. and ascended 86,409 feet above the Earth’s surface, where the balloon popped. With the help of a parachute, it safely descended and was recovered at 2 p.m. from a tree near Estell Manor, N.J.
“I think a lot of kids have lost the desire to study space and science since the retirement of the space shuttles,” said McKenzie. “There are so many cool things happening that people just don’t know about like the two-ton Curiosity Rover on Mars.”
McKenzie said his goal is to spark enough interest to ensure more children will grow up and consider careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
“I would not have been able to pull off this experiment without my background in aviation,” said McKenzie. “Much of this project’s success was based on being able to understand weather predictions and how to apply the data appropriately to ensure a successful launch and landing.”
Also vital to the project’s success was the enthusiasm shown by everyone at the school, including the students, their parents and the faculty. On the day of the launch, a crowd gathered behind the school to watch the project take life after months of planning, fundraising and coordination.
McKenzie even coordinated with the Federal Aviation Administration to give them a head’s up about the weather balloon project.
“It was a pleasure coordinating the operation with Mr. McKenzie, and I hope it was exciting for all the students at Ellison School,” said Patrick Ream, staff specialist, FAA Atlantic City Tower.
Ellison’s head of school, Caroline Chapman, shares McKenzie’s goal of sparking interest in STEM fields.
"This was an amazing opportunity for our students to learn about both space and weather through a project they could really understand and get excited about," said Chapman. "We appreciate Mr. McKenzie bringing this idea our way and are thrilled that both the launch and landing were successful. We look forward to working with our students to analyze the data collected on the Ellison Eagle's first mission to space!"
The students of Ellison School showed their enthusiasm during the launch, cheering and applauding as the weather balloon took flight. That level of excitement is exactly what many educators hope to inspire.
“There is a nationwide effort to get young people interested in STEM fields,” said Capt. Jonathan Russell, dean of engineering at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. “I applaud Lt. McKenzie in his efforts to spark the kids’ interest in these subjects and showing them how fun it is. It takes hard work, but the rewards are fantastic. My single greatest passion is trying to figure out how to get kids to think engineering is cool. I want to see the light bulbs go off, and we are willing to work as hard as we can to make that happen. We want to be the solution to the problem.”
McKenzie said the project was worth every bit of hard work that went into it, and was equally as rewarding for him as it was for everyone else.
“I found myself looking up theories and rules of science I hadn’t thought about since high school,” said McKenzie. “The kids kept asking such imaginative and interesting questions about what we were doing and what was going to happen. I got as much, if not more, out of the project as the kids did. It was incredibly rewarding in so many ways.”