Grassroots Balloon Mapping Effort Gives Students “Birds-Eye-View” of Campus

When you think of aerial mapping, “Google Maps” is probably the first thing that comes to mind. Normally, aerial maps are made by satellites and airplanes. Last month, The Learning Center! Charter School got a “birds-eye view” of their school with a grassroots balloon mapping project. What is balloon mapping? It is a means to create low-cost, high-resolution aerial maps. Basically, you fill a large balloon with helium, attach a camera to it, and then let it fly over the area you want to see. When you’re finished, you can stitch the images together with special software to create a large aerial map.

Professor Adam Griffith, M. Sc., Western Carolina University and co-founder of the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science came to The Learning Center! to engage the students in a balloon mapping STEM project.  STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and the school weaves every aspect of its curriculum around this approach to education.

Professor Griffith worked with 6th grade science teacher, Emily Willey and her class to make a high-resolution aerial map of the school’s campus.  Griffith was part of a group of people who developed a non-profit organization called, The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science which is designed to use this method of mapping to empower citizens to create better maps and documentation of areas of interest.  It is a community where you can learn how to investigate environmental and community concerns. Using inexpensive do-it-yourself techniques, their mission is to change how people see the world in environmental, social, and political terms.

One of the first uses was to map the gulf oil spill at a time when journalists and citizens were not allowed to enter certain areas of the spill.These tools have been used to contest official maps or rhetoric by enabling communities to map sites that are not included in official maps.

Students launched the balloon with a camera attached to capture aerial views of the campus and got to explore a free software program used to “knit” aerial images together into large maps.  “The students absolutely loved the activity,” said Willey,  “and we are lucky to have WCU as a local resource to show students the power of science, technology, engineering, and math!”

More information about balloon mapping can be found at

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