NEW PALESTINE — Sitting around the conference table, the four New Palestine Junior High School students and their teacher huddled around the Zoom meeting for a conversation with engineers from across the nation. They gathered to discuss an exciting science project with officials representing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

If all goes according to a plan created by the students, a balloon called “Sparky 1,” will float into the atmosphere this summer, observe the earth’s ozone layer, record data and collect samples of the air.

The project is part of an initiative through TechRise and is led by NASA’s Flight Opportunities program and administered by officials with Future Engineers. It allows student teams to participate directly in the process by giving them the chance to design and build experiments for suborbital flight.

“We want to propose these experiment ideas because of our environment and what state it is in,” the students said in their submitted proposal to be part of the program. “We know the ozone layer is rapidly thinning due to environmental changes.”

The girls call their team the “New Palestine Scientists,” and it is composed of seventh grade students Abi Maple, Jianna Tweedy, Layla Ratliff and Gwen Melby. They hypothesize that through more understanding of the ozone layer, scientist can perhaps repair it and help the earth.

Their idea was submitted to NASA as part of a nationwide school challenge in November, and officials liked the idea so much that the girls’ project was selected in late January as one of 60 team winners across the United States to be a part of the NASA TechRise Student Challenge.

The students are working now throughout the rest of the school year to get the balloon project together and ready for launch this summer.

“We were pretty excited to hear that we were selected,” Abi said.

The girls will develop a small payload with data recorders to fly up into the stratosphere on a high-altitude balloon and collect the data from the ozone layer.

“TechRise is a neat program designed for future engineers, and we all like that kind of stuff,” Abi said.

It was Abi’s grandmother who bought her a science magazine a few months ago, and that’s where Abi found out about the NASA contest and told her friend Gwen, who helped recruit Layla and Jianna to be on the team.

“We needed a team of four students and we were all friends so it worked out,” Gwen said. “The first goal was to come up with an idea associated with either a rocket-powered launch or high-altitude balloon proposal and send it to NASA, so we picked the balloon.”

Science teacher John Alter is the team sponsor and gives credit for the project to the four girls, who he said are all good students who enjoy science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) projects. Alter said the girls came up with the great idea to collect and test molecules from the ozone layer and then replicate the molecules and see if somehow the ozone layer can be repaired.

“They did this all on their own, and I’m very proud of them and their mindset to help the world,” Alter said.

Alter noted the girls will learn valuable skills in coding, wiring, soldering, mounting, epoxying and data analysis throughout the experiment. They have a cap of $1,500 provided by NASA to spend on the supplies they’ll need.

“We needed to find pieces for our project that were good quality but small enough to go into a 2-and-a-half-inch, plastic-type box to go up at the bottom of the balloon,” Abi said.

The girls had their first Google Meet with NASA officials Thursday and discussed the project further with several engineers. The team told the engineers how they came up with the idea and what they hoped to accomplish.

“We’re super excited to get to work with all of you,” one of the engineers said. “We’ll go over design review and the order procedures and all of those things.”

Project officials along with staff members at the junior high will guide the students in weekly Google Meets with at least one professional engineer via Zoom as they build their project piece by piece through the end of May.

The girls say they picked their ozone project because it’s a massive endeavor, trying to save the earth and everyone and everything living on it.

“The ozone layer is thinning, and that’s a problem because it will let in massive amounts of radiation, and that can highly affect the human population,” Abi said.

The data they gather will be taken back into a NASA lab where, hopefully, scientists there can replicate the ozone layer and create a way to help repair it.

“Our goal at the beginning was to do something that would actually make an impact,” Gwen said. ”We thought this experiment would be good to go with because it is not only teaching us, it is also possibly improving our world.”

Each of the students say they have a real love for science and will more than likely go into some type of STEM field in the future.

“I’ve always loved science and astrophysics, and I really want to be an astrophysicist when I grow up,” Layla said.

Jianna noted she really enjoys the building factor, getting a chance to do something with her hands, but she said the best thing is getting such positive encouragement from her teammates to be a part of the project.

“I had never really thought about doing something like this, but I’m really glad I’m a part of it,” Jianna said.

The high-altitude balloon will be launched from Arizona this summer under the watchful eye of NASA, but the students will be able to watch via Google. NASA will then send the data to the students and let them do some analysis, which they plan to work on next year as eighth graders.

“The one thing we all wondered was, ‘What does the ozone layer sound and look like?’” the girls said in their proposal.

Thanks to the curiosity, they’re about to find out.