A group of students at Liberty Middle School excitedly stepped out into the school’s bus lanes Wednesday morning after lunch to watch and hope that their science creations, two 18-foot hot air balloons, would take off into the sky.
Chris Cummo, an eighth-grade advanced physical science teacher at Liberty, began the project with his students last month, working for 30 minutes at a time with a small group of students to teach them how to put it together and then build it based off of the blueprints.
He has assigned this project to each of his classes since he first began teaching in 1991, first asking students to create balloons measuring only a couple of feet before scaling up to seven-foot balloons made of tissue paper up until this year.
Cummo made the decision to make the balloons more than twice the size of those in years past because of the pandemic and its impact at schools across the nation. Usually, he would assign kids into groups of four to work together, the kids all working on their team’s balloon all at once for longer lengths of time.
“In order to kind of spread people out, [we made] it bigger and had fewer kids working on the balloon,” Cummo said. “I would take 10 kids out into the hallway, and they would work on one section. So we were never super close like we would have been on the small balloons.”
Of course, the kids also loved the idea of crafting a huge balloon, suggesting bigger and bigger sizes to Cummo before measuring out materials to see just how far they could go with the width. In the end, they settled on 18 feet.
As they began planning for the balloons, they calculated the diameter and circumference they needed to sketch out a blueprint and make templates of panels. After learning more about how hot air balloons work to first raise into the sky and steer in the atmosphere, they began using the templates to trace the panels onto pieces of durable plastic.
After the panels were complete, students went out into the hallway to start taping them together with packing tape, sealing the seams on both the inside and outside to eventually form it into a sphere.
“How often do you ever learn how to make a sphere out of flat material?” Cummo asked. “It’s a good engineering project because they’re actually seeing the plans to templates to construction and then to see it actually work.”
Cummo explained that while it’s a great project for more hands-on learning, it’s also a great way to get students to work together and create lasting memories.
“They have fun,” Cummo said. “There are no other teachers doing this really, so of the years I’ve had kids come back, they always ask, ‘Are you still doing the balloon project?’ That’s what they remember at this age.”
Shane Moore, one of Cummo’s students who helped work on the project, agreed that it was not only fun and memorable, it also helped him learn more about other students in his classes.
“I just think it was awesome to see how everyone’s brains work on certain things,” Moore said. “Some things they were good at, some things they weren’t. And then how we all came together and made actually something that will hopefully take off.”
Another student agreed, remembering one day in class when she and the other students had to hold up the balloon in the classroom while Cummo and Moore climbed inside to tape up the last seam. She said she enjoyed working with others she wouldn’t normally talk to and just having fun.
“For them to work together, they could be disrespectful to each other; they could be not including someone,” Cummo said. “So the goal was to continue that whole philosophy of how you work together with people in a productive way so that you become a distinct person.”
They continued to work together Wednesday to bring out the balloons and supplies and get it up into the air. Many of the students watched as Cummo, with the help of a couple of students, filled both balloons with air before tipping the opening of the balloon over a heat source to help them rise.
One of the balloons didn’t launch due to factors such as the heat and wind. Nonetheless, the kids walked back to class with a sense of pride and happy memories to hold onto.