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Phil Bergmaier of Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium fills a weather balloon with helium as Wyoming Starbase Academy students stand by before setting it up to launch into high altitudes Thursday at the Raper Armory in Cheyenne. Starbase is an educational program for fifth-graders that partners with the Wyoming National Guard and the Wyoming Military Department with hands-on learning activities in science, technology, engineering and math. Hugh Carey/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – A marshmallow will expand at 98,000 feet in the air and shrivel back to its normal size upon coming back to the ground.

That’s what the students in the Starbase Weather Camp found out Thursday during a large experiment involving sending various objects high into the atmosphere attached to a weather balloon.

Presumably, 13-year-old Grady Burghard was not surprised by the effect the trip had on the marshmallow. He predicted it before they released the balloon that morning.

“We put different things in each of the crates, and we’re all wondering what going to happen. It’s going to go into a low-pressure zone and then go back into a high-pressure zone,” he said.

And then he said he was pretty sure he knew what would happen to the marshmallow because he already had completed an experiment that involved exerting high pressure and low pressure on a marshmallow.

Grady said he and the other kids had theories on what would happen to the other items.

His twin brother, Gavin, said the kids put raw eggs, candies, personal items, a banana and a lot of balloons into the crates attached to the weather balloon.

The weather balloon was about the size of a reclining chair at the time of release.

Amy Schick, one of the Starbase teachers, said they filled it with 12 pounds of helium and that by the time it burst at nearly 100,000 feet in the air, it would have expanded to the size of a school bus.

Gavin said he expected the egg to explode, possibly because of the high impact of the landing, as well as the expanding and shrinking of most items.

Grady said he put a water balloon in one of the crates and expected it either to freeze or blow up. He said he also expected the banana to explode.

But the only correct theory the boys had was that involving the marshmallow.

Mark Nowotny, another teacher in the Starbase program, said most of the items came back appearing to be unchanged. The banana, water balloon and egg did not freeze or blow up at all.

Nowotny said the shriveled marshmallow was one of two the kids included in the project. The second was a jumbo marshmallow they taped to the outside of the crates.

“They all laughed when they saw the marshmallow, and then they ate the marshmallows,” he said.

Nowotny said the purpose of the experiment was for the kids to learn what sort of effect low pressure and low temperature could have on various items.

He said he thinks the students learned a lot from the hands-on experience and had fun with it.

The University of Wyoming NASA Consortium helped make the experiment possible by providing the balloon, GPS systems to track it as it floated high in the sky, and a doctoral student, Philip Bergmaier, to guide the experiment.

And part of the fun was tracking the balloon and retrieving it once it fell. Schick said Thursday morning that they had an idea that it would land a bit southeast of Cheyenne, but there was no guarantee if it and its crates would fall on a house or anything else after it burst.

In fact, Nowotny said it landed outside of town on private property. He said the group then had to get in touch with the property owners for permission to retrieve the balloon and had to hike about 2 miles to reach it.

The weather camp is just one of seven camps Starbase is offering to academy graduates this summer, he said. Two others are about robotics, and the rest are about chemistry, rockets, airplanes, computer-aided design and engineering design.

Local students attend Starbase Academy in the fifth grade.

Gavin said, “I wanted to do (the weather camp) because weather here is very interesting. It changes randomly.”

Grady said the weather camp wasn’t the camp he originally wanted to attend, but he said, “I think it’s worth it.”

The weather balloon was just the tip of the weather camp, which lasts all week and involves multiple hands-on experiments, Nowotny said.

But perhaps none will result in such excitement as tasting marshmallows that traveled higher into the atmosphere than most airplanes.

Kristine Galloway is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s education reporter. She can be reached at kgalloway@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3184. Follow her on Twitter @KGalloway_WTE.

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