Tissue Paper Hot Air Balloon Construction and Launching

Tissue paper hot air balloons are one of those powerful STEM learning experiences that lend themselves so well to being cross-curricular.

IMG_0721There are the construction aspects that include measurement (length & angles for example) and skills like cutting with scissors precisely, gluing and following directions. Making mistakes, learning from those mistakes and moving on (messy learning). Collaboration, since in the classroom students usually construct the balloons in pairs or small groups. The engineering design process since as students launch their balloons they can note design changes that would lead to an improved design, make changes and relaunch to check results, and so much more. Oh, and yes, one of my favorites, there are artistic design aspects as well.  LEFT: Tissue paper balloon launch from 2013. Note the excitement of the kindergarteners as they chase it down! At this age teachers sometimes choose to construct a “class balloon” or two or three (but certainly more at times). Classes sometimes “buddy” as well – a 5th grade and a 1st grade for example.


Link to PDF of construction steps – also includes different sizes of tissue paper – we used 20 x 26 inch (51cm x 66cm) paper in videos below because it is what you usually find.

MATERIALS – So, what’s required for construction?

For EACH balloon:

– 18 sheets of 20 x 26 inch (51cm x 66cm) tissue paper (or note other size possibilities in PDF linked above) (100 sheet packs are around $12)

– scissors,  meter stick, protractor, marker, glue stick (during construction you will use the entire stick),

Here’s the video of what you would expect to get done during the first class period – about 45 to 60 minute period.

Part 1 – below

Day 2 directions below – again, expect a typical class period more or less:

Day 3 directions below:

Day 4 directions below:

OK, so you have a finished balloon (or balloons perhaps) – how do you launch them? Here are the directions to make the launcher you see used in the video.


– (1) – 5 inch x 2 foot double wall stovepipe – from hardware store – about $12








– (1) – Coleman (or other brand) propane 1 burner stove – about $35








– (1) – Propane tank (see in photo above of stove)

– (4) – 8-18 x 3/4 self drilling screws (box shown has 75 screws, but you only need 4)








– (2) – 1 1/2 inch x 5/8 inch corner braces (pack in photo includes screws – BUT THEY ARE NOT THE ONES YOU USE)








– (1) – drill with screwdriver bit for driving screws. (see it in photo with other materials)








(1) – Screw the stove pipe to the stove using the corner braces – each corner brace has 4 holes for screws, but you only use 2 of them.




















Repeat with a corner brace 180 degrees opposite the first brace.














Attach the propane tank and you have a finished launcher. We use a butane lighter to light ours. We also have a squirt bottle of water to put out any fires – rare, but tissue burns pretty quickly. At the balloon races with 14 of these going, we also had fire extinguishers (never used one) available.









Here is a link to a Flickr set from launch day at the races. Also some pics of weather balloons we launched –  NOTE – we check these launchers out to local schools so they can launch at school – teachers often want to go further with the design process now that the students are excited.

Learning is messy!

Posted in Cooperative Learning, Messy Learning, Project Based, STEM, Student Access, Teacher Access | 1 Comment

Send Your Students’ (and anyone else’s) High Hopes Up High

Note: If after reading this post you decide to participate leave your “High Hopes” Here.

IMG_4969 Doug Taylor and I started the High Hopes Project back in 2010, when we were both teaching 4th grade. Doug had seen this article about MIT students sending a styrofoam cooler attached to a balloon with a camera inside to near space and thought it would be a great way to study the layers of the atmosphere and other topics we were supposed to teach. Besides the science, language arts and other curriculum the project uncovered, we hit on the idea of having the students write their “High Hopes” for their school, community and the world. We shared the idea on this blog HERE, on our class blog, and I spent much of my TEDx Talk in Denver that summer describing the project.

We are planning our biggest launch yet during the spring of 2015. To kick off this project, which will be explained in more detail in future posts, we are launching 3 high altitude balloons this Friday from the Great Reno Balloon Race while 900 students are there to launch their own tissue paper balloons (see previous post). The balloons will make it to about 60,000 feet ( 18,000 meters) and will carry the “High Hopes” of anyone that sends us their “Hopes” by this Thursday night (9/4/14). In addition we will send them up this spring during the larger project.

To participate either write a “class high hope” or have students submit their individual high hopes in the format: “I live in (Optional), and my “High Hopes: for my school, my community and the world are …”

Here are some actual examples written by our fourth graders in 2010:

I live in Sparks, Nevada, and My “High Hopes” for school include graduating high school and working hard to improve my grades. But my Highest Hope for school is to graduate college and get a good job that I like.

I live in Sparks, Nevada, and my “High Hopes” for my community include police because they keep us safe, hospitals because they can heal and fix the injuried and schools so we can graduate school.

I live in Sparks, Nevada and my High Hope for the world is ending homelessness because it’s kind of sad that someone has no roof over their head.

Learning is messy!



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Tissue Paper Hot Air Balloons to Launch at Great Reno Balloon Races

From a Press Release today:

“900 Students from northwest Nevada will descend on Rancho San Rafael Park in Reno, site of the Great Reno Balloon Race, on Friday, September 5, 2014, to launch their own hot air balloons which they designed and constructed from tissue paper. In addition they will witness the launch of several high altitude weather balloons that will carry student authored “High Hopes” to altitudes of 30,000 feet or more.”







LEFT: Teachers learning to construct a tissue paper hot air balloon during a training in July 2014.






Specially designed launchers will be utilized to fill each balloon with enough hot air to send it aloft.


About 10 of these launchers will be available to launch student balloons.


BELOW: The tissue paper balloons are slipped down over the launcher and filled with hot air, then released when they become buoyant.



As part of learning the “engineering design process” required by the Nevada Academic Content Standards in science (Nevada adopted the Next Generation Science Standards), students will have resources available on-site to improve their design and then relaunch to assess their engineering skills.

BELOW: A video clip of a launch from last year’s event.

Learning is messy!

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Beginning the Year Activities

I’ve written this blog post before because I found building the community in the classroom so crucial. Why wait? Start off right away giving students opportunities and experiences that lead to a collaborative atmosphere.

Beginning of the Year Classroom Learning Activities,” –  I posted last year and it explains some of my favorite activities and includes links to longer more explicative versions.

Every Piece of the Puzzle is Important” – is a great project that teaches simple word processing and printing skills while demonstrating how we are all stronger when we realize what strengths we each bring to the group.

The Important Book, A Writing Lesson” – is a very popular post on this blog. Not only is it a great way to teach paragraphing, I use it to teach writing blog posts but especially blog comments.

Have a great start to your year!

Learning is messy!

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Nevada Tahoe Teacher STEM Institute

3 weeks ago we participated in the Nevada Tahoe Teacher STEM Institute. Over 50 K – 9 teachers from all over Nevada came to the Tahoe Environmental Research Center (TERC) at Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village, Lake Tahoe, for a week of STEM learning. The funding was based on a Math/ Science Partnership Grant we wrote and received through the Nevada Department of Education. The event was put on by the Nevada’s Northwest Regional Professional Development Program, Washoe County School District, TERC, along with help and support from others mentioned in this post. BELOW: We started off with a group photo.







Sunday evening we started them off learning the science of tie-dye (covalent bonds and all) and made the case for STEM learning. We also set up a STEM notebook for each teacher as well as a digital notebook (blog).











The next day started at 6:30 am for breakfast and a day of Project WET, GEMS (Great Explorations in Math and Science), background in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a trip on the TERC research vessel on Lake Tahoe, stream studies and training on and set-up of blogs, wikis and a Flickr photo account – all of which we added to all week.

DSCN0584 DSC02667




GEMS – Great Explorations in Math and Science



Out on the TERC research vessel




ABOVE: Field Lab Director Brant Allen explains the use of a Secchi disk in reporting out the clarity of the water in Lake Tahoe. The clarity has degraded from over 100 feet to about 70 feet since the 1960’s. BELOW: Secchi disk being lowered into the lake.


A couple of past visitors to the TERC research vessel you might recognize: DSC02702





BELOW: Stream monitoring and benthics.








During following days all teachers learned geology, aquatic habitats, space science, ocean science, food webs, the ethics of teaching outdoors – and the middle and high school teachers also worked in the Soluble Reactive Phosphorous Lab solving a mystery about pollution sources ala CSI. The grant provided experts from GEMS, TERC the USGS and others to teach classes and lead labs.DSC02753 DSC02758






In the Soluble Reactive Phosphorous Lab




BELOW:Food webs












Participants loved the “Digital Sandbox”

DSC02766 Geoff Schladow – Director of the Tahoe Environmental Research Center explains the “State of the Lake.”






We also got to visit the lake at sunset:






Besides the more than 40 hours of training, participating teachers each received lessons, supplies and other resources to take back to their classrooms and students so they can use what they learned right away. In addition teachers will have monthly follow-up sessions to share their progress, ask questions, share resources they have developed and make connections through the classroom blogs, wikis and Flickr accounts they set-up. It was an intense and rewarding week of learning and sharing in one of the most beautiful locations on Earth!

FLICKR Set from the institute


Learning is messy!

Posted in Blogging, Change, Cooperative Learning, Education, Field Trips, Inclusion, Literacy, Messy Learning, Project Based, Project Wet, STEM, Student Access, Teacher Access, Technology, Web 2.0, Wikis | Leave a comment

Why should education leaders embrace digital technologies in their schools?

Why should education leaders embrace digital technologies in their schools? leadershipday2014_01-300x240

1) If you are in a state that adopted the “Common Core State Standards” (CCSS) you really don’t have a choice. There are many (yes many) English Language Arts standards alone that require students as young as kindergarten to use technology to read, produce and publish digital content and to collaborate in doing so. Just a few examples from the CCSS:

K – 12 – Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

K-12 – With guidance and support from adults, explore a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing, including in collaboration with peers.

6th grade – (NOTE: by 6th grade the “… guidance and support from adults …” is gone. 6th graders are to master this standard on their own) Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others; demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of three pages in a single sitting.

5th grade –  Analyze how visual and multimedia elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text (e.g., graphic novel, multimedia presentation of fiction, folktale, myth, poem).

I’m not sure how we get our students to the mastery of these standards, and many others without ubiquitous access to and utilization of the technologies required.

2) Collaboration – This was already stated in the standards above, but those were specifically language arts standards. Communication and collaboration are already key to being educated, but also in getting a job. Learning to collaborate with the student next to you in class or in your group is great, but technology makes it easy (yes, easy) to collaborate globally. Will it be “good enough” if students just learn to collaborate in class? Will that foster solid collaboration skills with today’s (and tomorrow’s) technologies? Not that getting a job is the only reason to learn solid collaboration skills, but getting a job without having those skills is not getting easier. Mastering all the ways collaboration is leveraged personally and using technology is vital.

3) Programming and design – 3D printing (did you know they are printing whole houses, food and blood vessels already?), also –  software development, engineering, graphics, architecture, transportation, art, medicine,  and much more all rely on programming and design skills … this is what is happening now in fields with good paying jobs.

4) Inventing (often referred to as “making” these days) – This is hands on and motivating and requires the skills developed through pedagogy that includes all of the above.

5) Problem solving – (See above)

So you think children are already mastering these skills and technologies on their own by using their smart phones and other technology 24/7? Ok, let’s see how that works out with your students.

I don’t pretend that I’ve included all the reasons that leaders should consider (please add your own in the comments). But these are not easy or cheap changes that have to happen. We’re not going to provide the technology and professional development and commitment to change on the cheap. Only real leadership will get us there.

Learning is messy!

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What a Hoot!

Last Friday my wife and I were invited up to Galena Creek Park just outside of Reno, Nevada, to participate in a program designed to inform the general public and educators about the learning opportunities provided there by the Great Basin Institute. In addition we witnessed the release of 8 owls into the wild – 4 Great Horned Owls and 4 Barn Owls. These were owls that were cared for and rehabilitated by The Wild Animal Infirmary For Nevada.

DSC01266A Barn Owl ready for release.







A screeching Barn Owl – not more than 6 months old about to be released into the wild:

As I watched each owl being released I couldn’t help but think about creative writing assignment ideas. Mostly about how students could research the daily habits of barn owls and/or great horned owls and then write stories (which could easily become blog posts, podcasts, and so much more) about the experience from the point of view of an observer or from the owl itself.

A Great Horned Owl being released:

I’d brainstorm with my students what the owl would experience in being orphaned or injured. The rehabilitation experience. Then being in the box on the way to the park, being taken out of the car … sitting waiting to be released (is the owl aware of what is about to happen … or not?). Then being released … at dusk … its getting dark … is that scary for a young owl … or an adventure? You’ve never been on your own before … what is happening … you land in a tree not far from where you were released … what do you see, think, do?

You’ve got that incredible vision … what do you see? What could be scary? Fun? Interesting? …. So many possibilities.

It was a great night.

Photo of the sky that nightDSC01268






Link to the Flickr photo/video set of more owl releases.

Learning is messy!

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Lake Tahoe Launch … Messy and Worth It – The Short Version

So after last week’s debacle … we learned to be patient and wait for better wind conditions. Here’s the short version of what happened. We inflated on the beach at DL Bliss State Park:


Paddle boarded the balloon out where the clear water of Lake Tahoe was about 45 feet deep:


With a snorkeler for help (he also shot some great video with a GoPro I’ll share another time):


Next we launched with 2 GoPro cameras 40 feet deep in the lake at the end of a line and 4 more on other payloads:


Here are some of the views we got:

For size reference: Lake Tahoe is almost 22 miles long and a bit more than 11 miles wide. (35 km long X 19 km wide). The lake is 1645 feet deep (501 meters).

Lake Tahoe, Carson City, Nevada, Reno and Pyramid Lake from 90,000 feet + (near space)


Then the balloon burst somewhere between 95,000 and 100,000 feet – follow the link to see the frame by frame of the burst:


And the video:



Then it landed and we went and got it:

There was some animal byproduct to deal with:

It was a great day!

Here is a link to more photos.

NOTE: This launch was part of a project being developed by the University of Nevada, Reno- Mechanical Engineering Department, the 21st Century Division of the Washoe County School District, and Nevada’s Northwest Regional Professional Development Program (who I work for now). We were trying out some technologies and possible engineering and science problems to turn over to area K-12 students to solve for a similar launch next April or May – still in the planning stages.

Learning is messy!

Posted in Digital Video, Education, Field Trips, Inclusion, Messy Learning, Project Based, STEM, Student Access, Teacher Access, Technology | 3 Comments

Messy Balloon Launch – Failure is a Teacher

I’ve been “Tweeting” out from time to time lately about our latest “High Hopes” balloon launch. This balloon launch is different from launches we’ve done in the past in that students are not directly involved … but this flight is really all about getting students to be involved.

Lake Tahoe From Near Space during a previous flight (blue object in upper corner is a party balloon attached to the payload)











We have big plans for a project next year that will involve students, but we need to try out a few new twists and some new technology and that is complicated. In addition, one of our ulterior motives is to try things that won’t necessarily work or go well …  and so we’ll turn our ideas, results, and  problems over to students for them to engineer and re-engineer. It’s all part of that engineering design process.

In fact, some of what we are attempting is so complicated we experienced a failed launch yesterday. Part of the failure was trying to figure out the procedures required to launch a balloon from and in the water. This involves having divers in the water and has not been tried before so we were working it out. Our failure mostly resulted however, from trying to launch when the wind was just too gusty and unpredictable. Here is the video of the second balloon that popped on the ground:

This video was actually shot by a camera that was laying on its side waiting to be dropped into the lake … I rotated the image so it is easier to watch. The balloon is blown right into the kayak paddle … and that was that. We are monitoring the wind and will make a new attempt to launch next week when all members of the team have time and it isn’t a windy day … AT ALL … so watch for the results … if things go as planned we should get back some great photos and videos.

A more important reason for this post however is that if school was still in session I would be sharing this story with students and teachers … and I plan to in the future. I would also share this video of a NASA balloon launch gone astray that almost killed people and caused millions of dollars in damage. I have shown this commercial of Michael Jordan explaining the power of failure as well. (How many examples can you think of right now to add here? I bet a bunch.)

Students have to understand that adults and even “experts” have things, “not go as planned,” and that how we process and handle that is vital. This is the crux of “messy learning.” That the process should not purposely involve careless, especially dangerous mistakes born of disregard, but that analyzing and learning from mistakes is how learning evolves. We should be teaching this through the experiences happening in and out of our classrooms.

That takes time … learning and doing  that are important involve dealing with complexity and the complications that can only be realized by attempting complicated things. That kind of learning and doing can’t always be put on a tight schedule, nor should it. It also can’t always be planned or experienced the same across 2 or more classrooms on the same grade level when teachers are meeting in PLCs. Complexity and learning happen beyond what we can plan and we must embrace that more in our schools. To be fair I think most believe that, where we fall down is in not REALLY embracing it and allowing it to happen … even sometimes.

This messy learning is a big part of what STEM is about. Beyond the learning being messy, the planning, administration, scheduling and implementation are messy as well. And somehow it has to be OK that they are messy.

Sharing our failures and our thinking, planning and implementation after failure is one important aspect we don’t often give the respect it deserves in our schools.

Learning is messy!

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3D Printers – Where Will It End?

I’ve known about 3D printers for quite awhile, but only though news reports and the occasional conversation. So once I got involved in building my own …  then of course they were on my radar and I constantly notice them and hear about them … and acquaintances that have seen mine printing in my cubicle at work are amazed at the whole concept. Not that my printer is much of an example as yet … everything I have printed so far is flawed – not enough heat or printing too fast or ???. It needs adjustment and I need some time and some mentoring to get it there.








My printer printing out a 3D squirrel.


Here are just a few examples of where 3D printing is heading that have been in the news lately – click on the titles to read more:

Researchers are using 3D printers to make blood vessels






[Image credit: Khademhosseini Lab]

From the article:

“There has been talk of printing blood vessels for a few years, but it’s tricky to make tissue that fits the complex shapes of a human body while remaining effective. However, a research team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital may have licked that problem: they’ve 3D printed vessels using a new technique that allows for intricate yet capable designs.”


3D-Printed Food Actually Looks (and Tastes) Pretty Delicious

“Across the pond, in Germany, companies are doing some incredible things with 3D printing. They’re using it to make food. Actual food, like the kind that tastes good.

One of the more successful projects is Biozoon’s Smoothfood, which was developed to print food for senior citizens in retirement and assisted living communities. Those communities have a major need for food that their residents do not need to chew.”


Giant Chinese 3D printer builds 10 houses in just 1 day








From the article:

“A private company located in eastern China has printed ten full-size houses using a huge 3D printer in the space of a day. The process utilizes quick-drying cement, but the creators are being careful not to reveal the secrets of the technology.

China’s WinSun company, used a system of four 10 meter wide by 6.6 meter high printers with multi-directional sprays to create the houses. Cement and construction waste was used to build the walls layer-by-layer, state news agency Xinhua reported.”

The article/post includes a YouTube video that exhibits the houses and the printer in action.

These represent just a few of the ways 3D printing is being used – they’re even looking into printing food and more in space. What are the implications in education and in our lives?

Learning is messy!


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