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The Collegian

The Student News Site of Bob Jones University

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Bob Jones University

The Collegian

BJU Engineering students’ weather balloons captured wildfire photos

Balloon project led to unexpected photos of North Carolina fires in November 2023.
Smoke from wildfires in North Carolina captured by cameras attached to weather balloons launched by a team of BJU engineering students. Photo provided.
Students in BJU’s Introduction to Engineering class fill a weather balloon before launching it. Photo provided.

Student-constructed weather balloons launched by the Introduction to Engineering class from the roof of the parking garage at Bob Jones University in November 2023 captured images of forest wildfires in the North Carolina mountains.

Ethan Lee, a sophomore engineering major, said his team discovered the pictures after it retrieved the weather balloon after their mission.

“We had no idea our balloon had captured photos of the wildfire until we extracted the footage,” Lee said. “When the mission started, we were unaware of the wildfire raging in North Carolina. The picture brought a sense of accomplishment for capturing such a unique photo of a natural disaster.”

Dr. Jeff King, the engineering department head, said he designed the balloon project to give freshmen engineering students “an authentic, open-ended design problem.”

“This project is meant to stretch them beyond their comfort zone by asking them to do and know things that they have never been taught,” Dr. King said. “We give them tools and references, but expect them to fill in the gaps of knowledge by developing confidence in their ability to learn on their own as they become lifelong-learners. This open-ended nature is dramatically different than most of the homework or assignments they are used to, and it forces them to take ownership of both the process and the final solution. They must, as a group, design all the required components and ensure that everything works together on launch day.”

Lee described the process from its creation to its launch. The class of 36 students were divided into three sections of 12, each creating their own weather balloon. The three sections were furthermore divided into four teams of three students, with each team tackling a different aspect of the weather balloon’s design, construction and launch. The project was completed over the course of eight weeks. 

Lee described launch day as “both the most stressful and relieving part of the project.”

The BJU engineering team members (pictured left to right) are Sam Caasi, Tyler Beck, Nate Johnson, Joseph Beville, Pierceton Cruz, Vince Satur, Mark Stevens, Ethan Lee, Will Szweda, Tabitha Rivera, and Henry Miller. Photo provided.

“We are attaching two months of work and hundreds of man hours to a balloon, trusting that our calculations, predictions and preparations will lead to a successful mission,” Lee said. “Finally retrieving the balloon was the most exciting experience for everyone on the team. The mission was complete, and we could see and hold the fruits of our labor. Observing the mission footage and laughing with the team after the completed mission was my favorite memory from this project.”

His team found the weather balloon had taken photos of smoke from the wildfires in North Carolina. 

The smoke was likely a result of the Collett Ridge Fire, in Cherokee County, North Carolina. This fire encompassed more than 5,500 acres, threatening several structures, before it was contained Nov. 22 with the help of more than 220 firefighters at a $5 million cost, according to the North Carolina Forest Service.

This is yet another example of the wildfires scorching both the United States and Canada in 2023. In California, nearly 320,000 acres burned from wildfires. Canada has suffered the loss of acreage equivalent to the size of North Dakota. This is due to the hot, dry weather these areas experienced. 

For many students at BJU, these disasters may feel far away from their day-to-day lives. However, this is a frightening reality for students whose homes are in wildfire-prone areas.

The project, and resulting wildfire pictures, gave Lee a sense of accomplishment.

A weather balloon launched by a team in the Introduction to Engineering class at BJU captured images of the Collett Ridge Fire in North Carolina in November 2023. Photo provided.

“This project heightened my excitement to become an engineer,” Lee said. “At other universities, many students do not get to enjoy projects like these that simulate conditions found in the engineering workplace. Although this project required much work, it left me wanting to start another project with the team I have grown close to. It gave me a chance to apply my knowledge and studies to something greater than myself, and that’s a feeling I want to experience every day as a future engineer.”

For more information about the engineering program at BJU, click here

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About the Contributor
Bethany Brooks
Bethany Brooks, Copy Editor
Bethany Brooks is an English Education major at Bob Jones University. She has worked as a writer for The Collegian for two semesters and tutors at the Writing Center. In her spare time, she enjoys writing, reading, hiking, and spending time with family and friends.
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