N.M. AFJROTC cadets soar to space

Air Force JROTC Cadet Lillie Brooks supports part of the balloon train during a recent launch of the unit’s high-altitude helium balloon. (Contributed/Cleared)

Air Force JROTC Cadet Lillie Brooks supports part of the balloon train during a recent launch of the unit’s high-altitude helium balloon. (Contributed/Cleared)

An image of the earth taken by the high-altitude helium balloon launched recently by Albuquerque Public School District and Valley High School’s AF JROTC unit. The cadets sent a doll, lower left, along for the ride. (Contributed/Cleared)

An image of the earth taken by the high-altitude helium balloon launched recently by Albuquerque Public School District and Valley High School’s AF JROTC unit. The cadets sent a doll, lower left, along for the ride. (Contributed/Cleared)

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala -- "How cool! You can see the curvature of the earth!" is a comment repeated by students ranging from 4th grade to high school seniors in the Albuquerque Public School District while viewing images and examining their real-world science results.


This is the reaction APS and the Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps unit at Valley High School hear often after they recover the images following each flight of their high-altitude helium balloon, or HAB.


The school district and JROTC unit have launched 15 flights over the past two years, and the cadets help design the payload, build the electronics, launch the balloon train and recover the payload for the science, technology, engineering and mathematics project, said Cadet Capt. Conner Neal, during a recent STEM HAB presentation to Brig. Gen. Paul Guemmer, commander, Jeanne M. Holm Center for Officer Accessions and Citizen Development, headquarters for AFJROTC at Maxwell AFB, Alabama.


"At first our goal was to break the 100,000-foot altitude record for high school HABs, but now it's all about making our experiments work in a near-space." said Cadet Capt. Lillie Brooks.


"This is a cross-discipline, multi-grade- and district-level activity that both Navy and Air Force JROTC instructors and cadets have taken both the leadership of participants and management of this program," said retired Master Sgt. Charles Newman, the New Mexico unit's aerospace science instructor. "Indeed, JROTC is the leader of this exciting STEM program."


The APS district, school principals and staff are strong supporters of STEM, and Valley High School's AFJROTC unit and the Navy JRTOC unit at West Mesa High School are leading the charge.  District grade levels incorporate elementary, middle and high school students and faculty.


The JROTC units have established leadership among the students and staff alike. 


"Our JROTC cadets are teaching the teachers skills in STEM management that include planning and operations," said Alma Ripley, principal at Carlos Ray Elementary School and APS District Trajectory and STEM coordinator. "For example, our cadets taught our teachers how to solder and assemble printed circuit boards. Our STEM program has accelerated so far beyond what we imagined because of our integrated JROTC programs." 


Cadet Maj. Jordan Lovato, cadet commander, summed up their STEM activities during her briefing to Guemmer.


"These students and cadets are involved in Cyber Patriot, HAB, amateur radio, NASA International Space Station contacts, under-water robotics like the movie 'Spare Parts' they filmed here at Valley High School, and we also launch rockets of all kinds and sizes. But, what is the best is that we are having so much fun with science," she said. 


"They don't know it, but they just might learn something about science, technology, engineering and mathematics along the way, too," added retired Maj. F. Larry Zentner, the unit's senior aerospace science instructor. "Indeed, seeing students of all ages get excited about STEM-related activities may be the most rewarding teaching experience because I am seeing the interest maintained from year to year, and this is going to pay off when these students graduate and enter the real world."