Bill Syrett counted down, and more than 40 pairs of eyes turned to the clouds.
“Let her rip,” said the Penn State meteorologist and Penn State Weather Camp director.
Andrew Johnson-Levine did as he was told.
To cheers, he released a helium-filled red weather balloon that shot up as his fellow campers tracked it from Walker Building’s roof.
Monday’s demonstration on the second day of the six-day camp for students in grades eight to 10 featured a latex rubber 100-gram balloon, one of the smaller versions, without its customary instrument pack.
Instead, as a meteorological exercise led by Syrett, the campers timed its ascent — using the rate of 5 meters per second — to see how high it would be upon striking the nearest cloud.
Syrett also called attention to the balloon’s direction to discuss wind patterns.
On the heels of its Advanced Weather Camp for 11th- and 12th-graders last week, Penn State’s meteorology department is holding the camp for youth interested in meteorology careers or just fascinated by weather conditions and phenomena.
“To let them know there are other kids who share their passion for bad weather,” Syrett said.
It’s the 14th year for the summer weather camps.
“We started this because I would have loved something like this as a kid, just to realize there are other people like me,” Syrett said.
About a third of this week’s participants hail from Pennsylvania, with the rest traveling from 16 states as far away as California and Washington.
During the camp in the Joel N. Myers Weather Center on the sixth floor of Walker, they’ll study different aspects of weather, learn to take measurements, analyze charts and maps and use forecast models to make predictions. The week also includes a chance to make a TV weathercast.
On Monday, the students took a field trip to the local National Weather Service office in Penn State’s Innovation Park. Before returning home, they’ll visit AccuWeather’s headquarters in Ferguson Township and collect data at a weather station at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center in Stone Valley.
“Hopefully, get a couple of thunderstorms, get them excited,” Syrett said.
For the balloon launch, Syrett left off the instrument pack, which normally would have dangled far below, because a regular flight requires hard-to-obtain Federal Aviation Administration approval.
But he could still show his students one of meteorologists’ staples for gathering information. Every day, he said, the NWS releases 150 weather balloons around the country.
“It’s been the oldest technology for a long time, but it’s the cheapest way to get routine data,” he said.
After explaining about the balloon’s function, Syrett inflated it, then had a volunteer tie a knot. Everyone gathered in fascination.
“Get close to it,” Syrett said, encouraging the scrutiny. “Feel the balloon, yes. Don’t crush it.”
Dalencia Jenkins, a 10th-grader from Accokeek, Md., who wants to become a TV meteorologist, was impressed by the flight.
“I thought it was really interesting, even though it was hard to keep your eyes on the balloon,” she said.
Valerie Doornbos, a 10th-grader from Grand Rapids, Mich., won a joint Penn State-AccuWeather $650 scholarship to attend the camp. She, too, wants to be a meteorologist, but hopes to monitor severe weather, particularly tornadoes.
“I really liked watching it,” she said of Monday’s launch. “It’s the first weather balloon I’ve seen, and I hope to do it as a meteorology student when I go to college.”
She and the others strained to keep sight of the balloon as it shrank to a dot.
“You might get lucky,” Syrett said. “It might hit that cloud. If it goes through the cloud, it’ll disappear fast.”
Their hopes rose with the balloon. But in the end, nobody saw for certain if it struck the cloud about a mile up.
Sometimes, they learned, the sky keeps its secrets.