STEM Learning Using Code-able Drones

The 8th graders in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering have just completed a six-week project where they learned to code and fly small, indoor quad-rotor helicopters, or “drones.” These drones are essentially flying robots. They are Codrones by Robolink, a startup company featuring products for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) learning. I started using them with students last year, and we spent about one month with them, but this year I wanted to extend this time to give the students more opportunity and challenge–this ended up working out very well. The Codrone comes with a kit to make a small controller which can be used to fly the Codrone manually, but mainly features an Arduino device to allow the user to code the drone, hence the name, Codrone. Students first go to the Robolink website for tutorials on the Codrone and the Arduino programming. Then they download and use an Arduino coding platform on a laptop, then upload the code to the Arduino device and into the Codrone. Students learned to code the Codrone to fly on a set path.

I gave the 8th graders a culminating challenge to fly the Codrone around an obstacle to land on a small platform–this setup simulated a real-world scenario where an astronaut was hiking in a remote area to simulate conditions on Mars, but slipped and fell into a ravine from which a helicopter could not rescue him. A hiking rescue team was dispatched, but would take several hours to get to him. In the meantime, he was suffering from the fall and needed emergency medical supplies. The Codrone was the delivery vehicle for these emergency supplies. One crew managed to code their drone to fly and land within six inches, or about one simulated body length, from the wounded astronaut–they are featured in the photo in this post. Other crews did almost as well. Overall, the students found the scenario fun and challenging. Here are some comments the students had in their reflection after we concluded this project:

Overall I believe that working with the Codrone’s was good because I learned a lot. My crew especially learned a lot about teamwork and persistence. My crew had a lot of issues with code and having persistence and working as a team really helped us…We realized coding is not easy at all, and you have to code exactly what you want the drone to do because otherwise it will not work. My favorite part of the project was probably just when we actually got something done. Even if it was the smallest thing it made my group proud since we had a lot of issues. We had a lot of struggles but it was just great when we could actually get something done. 

Overall I learned a lot from participating in CoDrone. I learned not only about coding but also about teamwork, and how helpful it can be to have multiple people looking at the same code when trying to figure it out. Before beginning this project, I had very little knowledge of how to code, what coding was and what kinds of commands/variables could be used while coding. After we finished the final fly-off challenge though, i have a much clearer understanding of coding.

I learned a lot from the CoDrone experience. At first, it was hard to even get it off the ground. But we got through that problem in the first couple days. Our next goal was to get it turning and we were able to get it to do what we wanted. Lastly, we were challenged with doing the obstacle course. Our closest distance was 1.5 ft away from the target. I mainly learned that getting frustrated to easily never helps anything. We worked better when we were all calm and focused. My favorite part of this process was actually getting close to the target. I know that’s probably everyone’s favorite part but it was really exciting.

I learned a lot about coding while doing Co-Drone. I learned about how coding works, and how to understand what each line of code does. I think this EDP took a lot of teamwork and persistence since it was so challenging. I think that it was really important to understand that coding a machine to do something is very difficult because it is almost like learning another language (Code). Although our crew struggled with a lot doing this, in the end, we did really good. It just took a little time to get the angle and distance right but with a lot of trials we were able to get it about 6 inches away.

CoDrone was very useful and helped me to learn a lot about coding. I was also very happy with the turnout of the EDP. This EDP allowed me to be able to see how an actual coder might work. Whenever I hear about coding, the fact that the coder must be very accurate with their code would always come up. I found this to be true as an extra space or a missing semi colon could easily change the outcome of the situation. I also really liked how there was a final challenge and that the situation that it was based upon a real life situation. Overall I really liked this challenge and i would participate in this again.

When coding, tinkering, testing, and experiment with CoDones, I was able to learn information about coding that I would not be able to learn otherwise. To start, I had very little experience with any type of coding. Since I was able to gain experience with C++, I have an entirely new view on it. Most importantly, I learned that coding is essentially just logic. If you tell the drone to do something, it will do it, but it can’t tell the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ code. As for my favorite part, I liked the final fly-off. It was great to see all of what has been worked on for 2 months culminate together for a single flight. With improvements, there could be specific class periods dedicated to specific things, like actually learning to code or how to repair the drone, but most of it should be structured how it was already done. After this experience, I can now say that I done something few other people have.


Students Design, Build, Launch Model Rockets to Augment Learning

During the last few weeks of the school year, the 7th graders in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering have been learning about rockets for  the aerospace component of the curriculum. Students have researched and learned about various rockets, they have studied how rockets work, and they have designed launch systems for specific requirements. To augment their learning, they have built and launched Estes Alpha model rockets. Before launching, every student had to pass a National Association of Rocketry safety test (minimum score = 100%). Then each student crew built two rockets and learned how to safely launch them. Additionally, students learned how to make and use an inclinometer, a tool to measure the angle of the rocket’s highest point versus the horizon, then use this angle to calculate the rocket’s altitude using simple trigonometry. During launches, the crews that were not launching their rockets were tasked to measure the altitude. Starting this week, students will begin an engineering design project to design, build and launch an improved model rocket that each crew makes from scratch and that goes higher than the Alpha rockets did. When these students return in the fall, they will get a chance to do one more model rocket project as they study the physics of rocket flight. Therefore, academy students become well versed in rockets both through research projects and through hands on projects.

Here are photos of the students building their Alpha rockets, displaying their rockets, preparing to launch their rocket, then using the inclinometers:


Academy 8th Graders Doing Culminating STEM Activities

With about a month of school left, Ms. Garavel and I have been giving the 8th grade students in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering various culminating activities. These students have been in the academy for two years, and they are now very capable of rigorous, thoughtful work that integrates the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts and skills they have learned. In science, the students are wrapping up the last unit on earth science that focused on astronomy, especially of the Solar System. In math, most 8th graders will finish their last unit in the next week or two, then those taking high school-level classes, such as Algebra or Geometry, will take a final exam on June 14th. In the Principles of Aerospace Science Class, students are integrating these science and math concepts and skills in a unit on air navigation. Students learn first how to navigate by landmarks using pilotage, then using speed and distance and time using deductive or “dead” reckoning, then learn about celestial and radio navigation as ways to provide a fix, and finally they see how modern navigation systems have automated most of these skills. Here are photos of the students doing a dead reckoning lesson on the flight simulator:

Another culminating activity that the 8th graders are doing is to code and fly small indoor drones called Codrones by Robolink. Students have learned how to code an Arduino device that controls the Codrone, and now they are preparing to do a challenge where they will program the Codrone to fly a specific course. The course is laid out to simulate a rescue mission where the Codrone will deliver emergency medical supplies to a stranded hiker. All of the culminating activities the students do will help strengthen their learning over the past two years.

Academy Students Celebrate Completion of Sundial Project

Today students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering celebrated the completion of a sundial project started by last year’s academy class of 2017. The 8th graders last year got an assignment to design a sundial that could be a monument outside the academy to their class, the first group of students to complete the academy two-year program. The assignment integrated their studies of astronomy and the Solar System in 8th grade science, their study of circles in geometry, and their study of air navigation and celestial navigation in aerospace science. All six student crews (groups of four to five students) designed a sundial, then they presented their designs along with a scale model to Mr. Dias, Assistant Principal at that time. He chose the winning design. Then the winning crew had to present the design and a full-scale model to Dr. Collins, Superintendent, who approved the construction of the sundial. The district staff then helped us find an appropriate contractor for the sundial’s pavers, the Homer C. Godfrey Company of Bridgeport, and a contractor to install them this spring, Stonehedge Landscaping of Newington. Today we did a ribbon cutting ceremony to dedicate the opening of the sundial, almost a full year after the students initially designed it. The ribbon cutters were the original crew of student designers: Richard Greczkowski, Alek Jorge, Sydney Morgenthau, and Olivia Mullings. See my post from last year describing this project. After the ribbon cutting, they all said a few words expressing their amazement and pleasure at how well the sundial turned out.

Here are photos of today’s ribbon cutting, as well as a series of photos taken each hour on the hour to show the sundial’s almost perfect accuracy.


Academy Students Win Awards at Connecticut Invention Convention

Seven students from the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering competed in the state finals competition at Connecticut Invention Convention on Saturday, April 27th, at UCONN in Storrs, Connecticut. Of these seven, four students earned awards and scored among the top inventors. Nevertheless, all seven deserve recognition–there were over 17,000 students statewide that began as competitors in local Invention Conventions, and only about 850 made it to the state finals, or about 5%. Therefore, as the leaders of Connecticut Invention Convention stated during the opening and closing ceremonies, all of the students present at the competition had showed success in making it there. Ms. Garavel and I are proud of all of them!

7th grade Academy winner:
Julia Remiszewski – Bungee Buckle (bungee cord device to hold swim goggles on better) – Recognized Inventor Award.

8th grade Academy winners:
Jasmine Barber – EasyClean (cube of non-toxic chemicals that clean greasy pots and pans) – Recognized Inventor Award.

Alyse Karanian – SolarShade (window shade or blinds that have solar cells to absorb heat and generate electricity) – Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering Award, Eversource Energy Award, and Stanley Black & Decker Award.

Vidhisha Thakkar – Flow Alert (water activated alarm to warn of a flood) – Recognized Inventor Award and Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering Award.

We will know within the next week if any of these students were selected to progress to the National Invention Convention.

Here are photos of the Academy students at the Connecticut Invention Convention:


Building Science Learning by Having Students Teach

Eighth grade students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering are beginning an earth science unit that focuses on the Solar System. To help them build and reinforce their learning, Ms. Garavel had the students design a series of activities that they could use to teach fifth graders about the Moon. The project required the eighth graders to research a topic, then design a fun way to teach that topic. They then hosted a series of fifth grade student tours where the younger students rotated through the activities. All the students agreed the activities were educational and fun.

The seventh grade students have also been learning by teaching. They invited their seventh grade teachers to the academy and taught them how to fly the flight simulators. This reinforced their knowledge of flight, as they had to explain how to operate and control an airplane.

Here are some photos of these events–first are the 8th graders teaching the 5th graders about the Moon:


Here are the 7th graders teaching their teachers to fly the flight simulators:



Academy Students Advance to State Finals in Connecticut Invention Convention

Eight students from the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering who were selected as the best inventors at the Newington Invention Convention on March 1st competed in the Regional Connecticut Invention Conventions over the past two weekends. Out of these eight students, seven were selected to advance to the state finals at Connecticut Invention Convention. The state competition is Saturday, April 28, 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM in UCONN’s Gampel Pavilion. This is the second year in a row that seven out of eight academy students, or 88%, have advanced to state finals–the overall percentage of students who advance from the regionals to the state finals is less than 50%. I believe one reason for our high success rate is the academy’s integrated curriculum that includes quite a bit of engineering design, and another reason is that we just have great students!

These state finalists are:

7th graders:
Ryan Claffey – Field Tripper – organizes materials for students on a field trip.
Eli Johnson – Solar Water Purifier – purifies water using just sunlight.
Julia Remiszewski – Bungee Buckle – holds swim goggles in place better than a strap.
Jack Stair – EZ Jacket – allows people with disability to put on and fasten a jacket easily.

8th graders:
Jasmine Barber – EasyClean – uses safe chemicals to thoroughly clean dirty pots & pans.
Alyse Karanian – SolarShade – uses solar cells on window shades to generate electricity.
Vidhisha Thakkar – Flow Alert – provides a warning during a flood.

Here are photos of the state finalists just before they competed at the Regional Invention Convention:

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Academy Students Compete in Local Invention Convention

On March 1st, all the students in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering competed in a local Invention Convention, a feeder competition for the Connecticut Invention Convention. Ms. Garavel and I assigned the initial task to our students in mid-December by kicking off with a presentation on the requirements for the competition. Each student was tasked to design, build, and present an original invention to a group of judges. To help give the students ideas and to help them understand what an inventor goes through to create an invention, we Skyped with Ayana Klein, a high school inventor in Fairfield, Connecticut. Ayana has started her own company, 3Dux Design, based on her invention of modular architectural kits. Through December, January, and February, we gave the students about one or two class periods per week to work on their inventions, test and refine them, and practice their presentations. Students brought in their complete inventions about a week before the competition so that they could practice presenting to many different audiences.

The competition finally came on March 1st when dozens of school staff, parents, family members, and friends came to see the inventors and their inventions. We also had a special guest, Dan Amarante of Fox 61, who did interviews for his special feature on innovation in education, Great State of Minds. We expect to see the story on television on Tuesday morning, March 6th. The main event for the competition was when each inventor presented his or her invention to the judges made up of a group of volunteers from two local aerospace firms, GKN Aerospace and PCX Aerostructures.  Bruce Fiedorowicz, Executive Director of the Aerospace Components Manufacturers (ACM) was also there as a long-time supporter of the academy, and he helped advise the judges and hand out the awards. The judges used the Connecticut Invention Convention criteria to select the top 15% of inventors, or eight out of a total of fifty-one competitors. These eight winners will go on to compete in the Connecticut Central Regional Invention Convention on March 24th. Winners from that event go on to the state Connecticut Invention Convention on April 28th at UCONN’s Gampell Pavilion. Here are the winning inventors and their inventions:

7th graders:
Ryan Claffey – Field Tripper – organizes materials for students on a field trip.
Eli Johnson – Solar Water Purifier – purifies water using just sunlight.
Julia Remiszewski – Bungee Buckle – holds swim goggles in place better than a strap.
Jack Stair – EZ Jacket – allows people with disability to put on and fasten a jacket easily.

8th graders:
Jasmine Barber – EasyClean – uses safe chemicals to thoroughly clean dirty pots & pans.
Alyse Karanian – SolarShade – uses solar cells on window shades to generate electricity.
Shiven Patel – Auto Jack – uses hydraulic assist to make jacking a car easier.
Vidhisha Thakkar – Flow Alert – provides a warning during a flood.

Here are photos of the competition and of all the competitors (a special thanks to Kaitlin Norton, Newington Public Schools Digital Content Specialist, who took most of the photos):



What do students think of all this? Here are some of the reflections they wrote today:

“What I liked about the whole invention convention process is that it is a good way to apply the EDP [engineering design process] to an invention. I think that it was a good friendly competition. I liked that it took a while and hard work to get the process done.”

“I’ve learned a lot over the past few months that I have been working on my invention. Firstly, I learned that I should be proud of everything that I have done, no matter what happens. I worked hard, brainstormed and came up with my invention and built it, that is what matters. It’s not about winning, or going to the next level, it’s about working hard and trying your best.”

“Invention Convention is a remarkable experience that has taught me many new things. Compared to last year I felt more prepared because of experience from the previous year. I was able to use the experience from last year to help me from building the invention to giving the presentation…I learned some new things such as how to work with a circuit and also about flooding. It is also a great opportunity to practice presentation skills which is a very important skill in life. Additionally, I have learned to listen to other peoples feedback and use it to benefit you rather than getting offended. Overall this is a great experience and I have learned a lot and hopefully, I can continue the journey to learn.”

“After participating in the Invention Convention, I was able to take a lot away from the experience. This is because it was another great way to practice the engineering design process, but unlike other EDPs, we also were able to choose essentially any topic to work on and could share our ideas with friends, family, and teachers other than Mr. Holmes and Mrs. Garavel. Because of this, I feel that this is the perfect project to really show others what we do here in the academy. Also, it really helped to practice public speaking, a skill that anybody could use, whether they go into STEM or not.”

Using the Engineering Design Process to Teach Service Learning

In honor of the current Winter Olympics, the 8th grade students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering decided to organize their own Academy Olympic games for the academy 7th graders to play. Our students stay one hour longer in school every day, and this extra period is the perfect time for hands on projects, STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) competitions, flying the flight simulator, and going outside to fly model aircraft or model rockets. Winter can be challenging, as we are generally stuck indoors. Therefore, the Academy Olympics gave the students a great day of fun learning right before we went on February break. For the 8th graders, this became a service project, as they were doing the work to provide a fun learning activity for the 7th graders. We have done other service projects, or service learning, in the academy in the past, and it can be challenging getting 25 or more middle schoolers to organize a project. As I started working with the 8th graders on this service project, it occurred to me that the NASA engineering design process we use for engineering design projects was the perfect framework to guide us in conducting this project.

The way we used the engineering design process for this service project worked as follows–the traditional project planning words are in bold, while the engineering design process steps are in underlined italics:

  • The 8th graders first planned the olympic events by doing some research, then brainstorming various events.
  • Next they organized the events by having each crew (group of about four students) design its event in detail. Each crew also presented its design to the other crews and everyone discussed ideas to improve each event.
  • The 8th graders then prepared their events by building or modeling what was needed to play or compete in the event, along with score sheets and other materials.
  • The day before the Academy Olympics, the 8th graders rehearsed their events by having one crew play (test) the other’s event, then switching, and having each crew provide feedback to the other so that they could refine it.
  • Finally, on the day of the Academy Olympics, each crew conducted its event by presenting it to the 7th graders.

The events were:

  1. A knowledge game like Jeopardy.
  2. A team game based on “escape the room” where students had to answer a series of riddles.
  3. A quick design challenge.
  4. A physical fitness challenge (pushups or situps, then planks).
  5. A team game where one person guides another blind-folded person through a “mine field.”
  6. A flying challenge on the flight simulator.

Each 7th grader could sign up for three of these events, and each event took ten minutes. Scores were accumulated by crew, and Crew 6 was the final winner of the Academy Olympic games. To assess the 8th graders in this project, I modified our Engineering Design Process (EDP) Rubric and made it a Service Project EDP Rubric.

Here are photos of the 7th graders competing as the 8th graders run the events–notice that there are no adults directing anything–the students were 100% in control, as Ms. Garavel and I just monitored for safety and timing:


Afterwards, the 7th graders gave the 8th graders feedback–they enjoyed the games very much, and they had some constructive suggestions. The plan now is for the 7th graders to  organize and conduct a similar event in the spring for the 8th graders to compete in, then possibly to extend it to a local elementary school. Let the games begin!

Integrating STEM Lessons

Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering benefit from an integrated STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) curriculum everyday, but some days we are able to completely integrate these four disciplines. Today was such a day for the 7th graders. In 7th grade science, they have learned about simple machines, and compared the way an airplane climbs to an inclined plane. In aerospace science, they have learned how to fly an airplane and control it. In algebra they are learning how to find the line of best fit for a set of data points using linear regression, and to judge how well the data is correlated. They also have learned to use TI-84 graphing calculators and STEMPilot Edustation flight simulators, two pieces of learning technology we use weekly. Today’s assignment was for each crew (group of 4 students) to fly a flight simulator as if they were a flight test crew, carefully holding a steady airspeed as they climbed to an altitude of 3000 feet. On the way up, the crew members who were not flying were tasked with timing the climb and noting the elapsed time at every 500 feet of altitude. We got six sets of data from the six crews, then averaged the times to reach each 500-foot increment. Then we discussed how to do the linear regression, and the students computed a linear equation for the line of best fit and calculated the correlation coefficient, which was almost perfect. We discussed how the slope of this line was the climb rate, and we converted into units that pilots use, feet per minute. All this was done in about 40 minutes–an outstanding performance–and every student was involved. Here are photos of the students on the flight simulators and their data table with calculations:


IMG_4114 copyClimb Rate data

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