Up, Up and Away: U.Va. Campers Launch Weather Balloon

July 29, 2008 — After craning her neck skyward to get a final glimpse of the giant balloon that she and her classmates had just launched into the atmosphere, University of Virginia Summer Enrichment Program camper AnnaLea Clayton-Chawartz said, "My dad said we'd launch a weather balloon, but I didn't believe him."

The rising eighth-grader from Prince William County, Va. is one of 17 students who participated this morning in the launch of the weather balloon that is part of the "Ask a Meteorologist Weather or Not" class being taught by Luke Sitka, a graduate student in U.Va.'s environmental sciences department.

In the course — just one of the Summer Enrichment Program's many offerings — students explore the underlying meteorological theories used that illustrate the atmosphere as an integrated system, Sitka said. They learn to use instruments, employ data collection methods and make analytical connections within the field. In addition to the weather balloon launch, students made their own barometers and thermometers, performed field studies around Grounds and participated in a forecasting contest.

Sitka said he hopes that real-life experiences like the weather balloon launch will not only excite young students about atmospheric sciences, but also make them aware of how they can affect their daily lives.

"Our goal is for them to not blindly believe what they read, but question and understand current scientific issues," he said.

So how is camp going?

"It's great here," Clayton-Chawartz said. "Mr. Luke is awesome, and all the classes are cool."

Other offerings include a writing course taught by U.Va. graduate student Vicki Fantozzi on "What's Your Story: Making Picture Books"; a personal finance course taught by Fauquier County math teacher Barbara Love, in which students have their own checkbook and each day is the equivalent of one month; and Chinese brush painting, taught by Crozet Elementary School art teacher Ann Friend Clarke.

Curry Ph.D. students Amy Germundson and Deanna Vogt developed this year's curriculum, said Summer Enrichment Program director Julie Baird, who noted that some 50 counselors and nearly 40 teachers are participating in the program.

The program's goal is to use classes representing diverse disciplines and fields as portals to developing individual student strengths and talents, interests and ways of thinking, Baird said.

The weather project arose from interest the students expressed during the program's application process. When prompted to write about a community concern, more than half of the residential summer camp's 2008 admission essays focused on global warming, a phenomenon that did not go unnoticed by Baird.

"SEP benefits greatly from opportunities to collaborate with other departments across the University," she said. "Not only do the students in this class have a chance to learn from an expert in the weather field, but they are able to work with specialized equipment generously loaned by the Department of Environmental Sciences."

This residential summer program for gifted and talented students has a 29-year history at the University of Virginia. Students who are currently in grades 4 through 10 may apply. This year, 936 students are participating in the program, which is broken out into three two-week sections with 312 students in each.

SEP tuition is low compared to similar programs at other institutions, such as Duke University and Johns Hopkins, Baird said. Some $40,000 in scholarships are also made available to campers who attend U.Va.'s program, most of whom are from Virginia and East Coast states.

— By Rebecca Arrington