There is increasing interest in human space exploration beyond the Moon’s orbit, such as venturing to Mars. However, the effects of radiation are still a major concern for such travel. Astronauts need shielding from certain types of harmful radiation emanating from the sun and deep space.

One cheap way to test radiation shielding is with high-altitude balloons, which ascend into near space (i.e., the upper atmosphere) where radiation levels are higher than at the ground. Teams of scientists and engineers on such projects must be aware of design constraints, costs, material and payload limitations, and public support. Through role playing and problem solving, this activity prompts a mock “space race” competition between two teams of students to build and test a radiation shielding device.

The instructor presents the students with a space agency scenario. After being assigned to a team and given a specific role, students begin working on their missions. The computer scientists learn about Arduinos and basic computer coding, the engineers learn about shielding materials, the economists learn about budgets and cost-benefit analysis.

Each student will have the opportunity to contribute to their team in one way or another. Throughout the activity, each agency designs and builds an Arduino radiation payload with a shielding apparatus to block certain types of ionizing radiation from reaching their radiation sensor. They then fly these payloads to near-space with a high-altitude balloon, measuring changes in radiation as a function of altitude.

After the flight, each team analyzes their radiation data to assess the effectiveness of their shielding apparatus. They then communicate their findings with the rest of the class. Finally, the instructor uses a set of metrics to determine which agency did the best job throughout the activity and declares them the winner of the space race!

Educational Overview

Grade Level:  High School (9–12)

Class Size:  12–20 students


~$25 if borrowing one of our payload kits, $1,000+ if flying your own balloon and payloads


  • Phase I – Introduction (45 minutes)
  • Phase II – Research & Design (60 minutes)
  • Phase III – Payload Development (120 minutes)
  • Phase IV – Balloon Launch (all day)
  • Phase V – Data Analysis (90 minutes)


Physics, Engineering, Computer Science, Programming, Circuits, Material Science, Atmospheric Science, Earth Science

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Define the types of radiation and their effects on human life.
  • Explain the concept of radiation shielding and why it is important for astronauts.
  • Describe how the radiation data is measured, analyzed, and interpreted.

Activity Worksheets & Downloads

  • Space Radiation Intro Presentation  —  PowerPoint / PDF
  • Agency Roles & Worksheets (printout)  —  Word / PDF
  • Rules & Material Costs (printout)  —  Word / PDF
  • Material Payment Slips (printout)  —  Word / PDF
  • Sample Data File  — CSV
  • Helium Lift Calculator  — Excel

Note: This unit was developed in 2019 by a team of UW undergraduate student interns as part of our LIFT Project. In 2021, we published these lessons and activities here with