Science program looks to crowdfunding to expand

SPRING GROVE – Each year the near space balloon project at Spring Grove Elementary School gets a bit more complicated.

Its organizer, Paul Kaup who started volunteering at the school through Southwest Airline's Adopt-A-Pilot program, hopes to continue that trend.

He launched a page on crowdfunding website – a method of soliciting typically small donations from the general public instead of the more traditional route of seeking corporate sponsorships or through fundraising sales – that he hopes will raise enough money to expand the program to Nippersink Middle School and Richmond-Burton Community High School.

The crowdfunding drive was picked as one of 24 finalists by the magazine Popular Science and the website that hosts the projects, RocketHub. The #CrowdGrant finalists will be promoted by the national publication.

Kaup hopes the exposure will give the project an edge in getting picked by RocketHub's other partner, the A&E channel, for its Project Startup initiative.

Kaup started working with Spring Grove Elementary's fifth-graders in 2010 following the curriculum provided by the Adopt-A-Pilot program, but a few years later, he was inspired by another pilot, Scott Fitzgerald in Edwardsville, who worked with his students to launch a near space balloon.

In spring 2012, Kaup followed suit, launching a balloon outfitted with a GPS and camera. The next year, the video was transmitted live back down to mission control. (Kaup had to get an amateur radio license.)

"It was such a big hit," he said. "The kids love it. They gravitate toward it. What I like is that they're learning without even realizing they're learning."

They're learning how a GPS system works, how to read maps, how to predict where the balloon will land and some of the lingo pilots use, fifth-grade teacher Denise Christensen said.

"From the beginning of the day, it's almost like a tidalwave of excitement," she said. "The kids know they get to watch the balloon go up. The whole school comes out. There's a lot of screaming and shouting as the balloon goes up."

Most of the cost of running the program has been covered by Kaup. He's received some help from corporate sponsors and the Spring Grove Elementary School parent-teacher organization.

Kaup doesn't mind the cost, but he figures with a little more funding he can expand Spring Grove's program and the one run by Fitzgerald.

The project – nicknamed Project Reach for the Stars on RocketHub – has a goal of $5,000, and as of Friday afternoon, it was 17 percent there.

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