Authentic STEM Lesson: Studying the Solar Eclipse

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Students and their families and friends of the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering came into school today (nine days before school starts) to observe and study the solar eclipse. This was an authentic STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) lesson where students got to do all four of the STEM skills in an authentic exercise of actual observation. In my previous post, I explained how I planned to set up a safe eclipse viewing using telescopes to project the image of the eclipse onto a shaded screen in a box–that’s what we did, and it worked out very well. I invited 75 students and their families, and I ended up getting 32 students with their families and friends, totaling more than 50 people. Our Superintendent, Deputy Superintendent, Principal, Assistant Principal, and some other school staff all joined in. This was more than I expected, given it’s still summer vacation when everyone has various commitments and vacations.

When everyone was arriving, I had telescopes, boxes, tape and paper ready to go. I also had posted a series of questions for students to answer as they observed the eclipse to guide their learning. I had a couple older students demonstrate how the projection viewer worked, and I gave a brief safety talk and pointed out the questions, then I let people form groups around each telescope, put together their boxes, then start viewing. Many people needed help getting the image to show up, but once they saw how to do it, they quickly caught on. While this was happening, I also had NASA’s live streaming of the event on a nearby classroom screen so people could watch that as they wished.

In our area of Connecticut, the eclipse was about 70% coverage with the peak at about 2:45, so after that, I called in the students in a circle, and we addressed the questions I had posted. Here is what I had asked:

  1. What is a solar eclipse? What is a lunar eclipse? Act out each with props (laid out in the classroom).
  2. What time would you expect to see a solar eclipse? a lunar eclipse? Explain why.
  3. What phase of the Moon is occurring during a solar eclipse? during a lunar eclipse? Explain why.
  4. Why are eclipses so rare?
  5. What motion are we observing during the eclipse–is the Moon or Sun moving relative to the other? Explain what this motion is. Calculate its angular speed.

They answered all of these questions with only a little help, and I was very pleased they got the idea of what we had observed.

Finally, I broke out eclipse cookies (Oreos) and demonstrated how to make a partial eclipse, a full eclipse, and a disappearing eclipse…

Here are photos from today’s observation and study:

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Viewing the Solar Eclipse Safely

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Students and their families of the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering are invited to an eclipse viewing outside of the academy facility on Monday, August 21st during the partial eclipse over our part of Connecticut from 2:00 to 3:30 local time (Eastern Daylight Time)–the peak is at 2:45. A couple weeks ago, I tweeted a link to a Space.com article that gives an excellent interactive map and explanation of the eclipse, so if you are somewhere else in the US, you can use this to plan your viewing. My recommendation is to make a projection viewer, not to use the eclipse “safety” glasses. I’ll explain how to make a projection viewer, then I’ll explain why the glasses are a bad idea.

A projection viewer puts the image of the eclipsing Sun on a screen where you can see the image magnified and dimmed so that it’s safely and easily visible with the naked eye. The simplest projection viewer is using a box where you poke a pinhole in one side to let the Sun’s image through, then tape white paper to make a screen on the facing inner side of the box. You also need another opening where you can look through and see the image on the screen. Here is a NASA video that shows how to make such a viewer using an empty cereal box. A smaller and cleaner pinhole makes a clearer image, and a longer box (between the pinhole and the screen) makes a bigger image. If you look through and aren’t happy with the image, experiment with the projector to improve it — you have about an hour where the Moon is clearly overlapping the Sun, so it’s plenty of time to make changes. One major safety tip: DON’T LOOK THROUGH THE PINHOLE AT THE SUN. To aim the Sun through the pinhole, you just need to hold the box so its shadow is as narrow as you can make it–this means the box’ top where the pinhole is placed is squarely facing the Sun.

Another type of projection viewer is using a telescope to project the Sun’s image onto a screen. The advantage of the telescope is that it will make a much bigger image in a shorter distance due to its magnification, and it allows you to focus the image. Our academy telescopes have 90-degree eyepiece mounts that make them ideal for this purpose since we can project the image sideways into an open topped box with a big screen, and the sides of the box shade the image so it’s very visible. Here are photos from a previous post where I show how we did this to view sunspots earlier this year.

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If your telescope does not have a 90-degree eyepiece mount, then make a hole in one side of a box to fit around your telescope so that the eyepiece points into the box and projects the image on the opposite inner side of the box. Sky and Telescope gives a good description of several ways to project the image in this article. A couple safety tips using a telescope eclipse viewer:

  • Never look through a telescope at the Sun, unless you have a solar filter on the telescope–and I don’t recommend using this either unless you are very sure about the filter and its safety qualifications. To point the telescope directly at the Sun, look down at the telescope’s shadow–make it as small as possible, then it will be facing the Sun.
  • Don’t use a telescope with a diameter bigger than about four inches, or else it may magnify the Sun so strongly that it burns the interior of the telescope. Similarly, use the lowest magnification eyepiece for the eclipse viewer.
  • Use a refracting telescope (one with a primary lens) vs. a reflecting telescope (one with a primary mirror) to also avoid damaging the telescope.

Finally, what about the eclipse “safety” glasses that everyone is scrambling to get? I think these are a bad idea for several reasons:

  • While many of the glasses are certified to be safe, there have already been recalls and findings of counterfeit, unsafe glasses. Given the huge popularity of this eclipse, there is a likely to be a fast growing black market for the glasses, and at this point I would not trust any of them.
  • Even with safe, certified glasses, people may not wear them properly–especially small children. The glasses are typically cardboard and ill fitting, so it’s easy for them to slip out of position. The glasses also might get torn or scratched, allowing sunlight through. Any unfiltered ultraviolet light will permanently damage your eyeball. The danger from eclipses is that the reduced sunlight is not as painful as full sunlight, so we tend not to blink and look away, but the sunlight that is still coming through can damage our eyes.
  • To use the glasses, you have to look up at the Sun. This means you are pointing your face at the Sun for an hour or more on a summer day. Similar to eye damage, sunburn is possible during an eclipse where you may not feel the Sun’s strength as much.
  • The angle you have to look up at the Sun is fairly high, as the Sun is being eclipsed around the middle of the day when the Sun is highest in the sky, especially so during the summer months. This makes viewing the eclipse uncomfortable, and many people will probably get out lawn chairs to lie on their backs to view it, making for full frontal Sun exposure.
  • All of the previous reasons are primarily safety reasons, but the final reason the glasses are not very good is that the image is disappointing. The Sun’s diameter is only about 32 arc minutes (about one half of a degree) across. It seems bigger because of its brightness. This means you will see a very small light circle eclipsed by a very small dark circle during the eclipse. In contrast, if you use a projection viewer as I recommend above, then you can make the image much bigger. Our telescope projection viewers easily make an image that is about six inches or more in diameter. With a telescope projection viewer, you can also easily see any sunspots on the un-eclipsed portion of the Sun.

For all these reasons, I recommend enjoying this eclipse with a projection viewer.

NOTE: Featured image of eclipse map is from https://www.space.com/33797-total-solar-eclipse-2017-guide.html#sthash.GsaXvkjN.uxfs.

Lessons Learned on Invention Convention

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Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering have competed in Invention Convention for the past two years (the academy’s entire existence), so it’s useful to reflect on what went well and what could be improved. Invention Convention is an outstanding STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) competition where each student designs and builds an invention, either a model or a prototype, and produces a trifold display, then presents these products to a panel of judges. We participated in Connecticut Invention Convention (CIC) both years, and this year we had four students make it to the national competition, National Invention Convention and Entrepreneurship Expo (NICEE).

CIC begins with a local competition that a teacher or advisor sets up in the school or community–I set up one in our academy facility, and I required all of my students to compete and invited other teachers to let their students compete. I followed the CIC guidance, which CIC provides through excellent one-day training sessions with loads of downloadable materials. We set up the area similar to the way the state and national competitions are run with students in “judging circles” of about six students each. CIC provides a process for students to follow to design and build their invention, but I used a similar NASA engineering design process that our academy uses. To get judges for the local competition, I recruited volunteers from two aerospace firms in our town, GKN Aerospace and PCX Aerostructures. CIC recommends using outside, impartial judges, vs. teachers or parents, and I found this to be excellent advice. The first year I did all this, I gave my students some informal time to present their inventions to one another before the competition. Their feedback after the competition was that they had some difficulty knowing what to say to the judges. Therefore, this year I gave my students a few days to practice presenting. We started with a day where we brainstormed as a class on what to say, then we took those items and created a 2-minute pitch that every student practiced and gave to the class. In feedback after this year’s competition, many students felt the pitch was helpful, including those that competed all the way up to NICEE.

Our experience at each level of Invention Convention this year was very positive. I have posted previously on our local Newington Invention Convention, on the Central Regional CIC, and and on the state CIC. In summary, this year we had about 60 students compete locally, of whom nine (15%) were allowed by CIC rules to advance to the regional competition–the nine top inventors picked by the judges. Of these nine, eight (89%) advanced from the regionals to the state competition (CIC). Of these eight state competitors, four (50%) advanced to the national competition (NICEE) and won major awards at CIC. These percentages are very high, well above average, and I attribute them to our continual focus on creative work and engineering design in the academy and on our preparation for Invention Convention following CIC guidance.

This year was the first time we sent students to NICEE. The competition was held at a small venue, the US Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, VA, and only one parent was allowed in with each student. I thought this was unfortunate, as I would have liked to attend. Next year’s competition at the Ford Museum in Michigan should allow for more people to attend. However, I followed the competition online, including the awards ceremony that was streamed live. My observations were that the NICEE criteria for awards were generally in line with those of CIC, but NICEE seemed to emphasize commercial potential of inventions over solving problems in various fields. Nevertheless, my four NICEE competitors told me afterwards that they felt they were well prepared for the competition. In the end at NICEE, one of the four students (25%), Olivia Mullings, was a runner up for the Innovation in Electronics award for her Temp Safe invention that helped save babies or pets locked in a hot car. Here are photos from my four students who competed at NICEE:

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Academy students Olivia, Shiven, Jasmine, and Alek prepare to compete in National Invention Convention and Entrepreneurship Expo (NICEE)

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I strongly recommend Invention Convention as one of the best STEM competitions your students can enter. While I like team STEM competitions and have coached several of them, I think that the solo competition in Invention Convention is also very beneficial since it gives every student a chance. If you are a STEM teacher in Connecticut and use the materials that CIC provides, you should find it is not difficult to coach your students or even to set up your own local competition.

Teaching Persistence is Key to STEM Learning

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Students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs often tackle difficult projects, and if they have short-term expectations, they can become discouraged–instead, they need to learn persistence. Students in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering tackled several STEM projects recently and showed outstanding persistence in achieving results.

The 7th graders learned the basics of model rocketry in May by first taking and passing a safety test, then by building and launching Estes Alpha rockets–I covered this in a previous post. After that, the students have designed, built and launched original model rockets of their own design. They were required to make all the parts of the model rocket themselves–they designed and 3D printed nose cones, they hammered out metal to make engine retainer clips, they made fins, and they put it all together and measured the stability of their rockets. At each stage, things went wrong, but the students fixed the problems and pressed on. In the end, all six crews successfully launched and tested their model rockets. Here are photos of each crew with their uniquely designed rockets:

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The 8th graders also showed persistence in a few recent activities. First, one crew continued to refine the design of an electrically powered model airplane that was part of an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) STEM challenge we did this winter. The goal was to have the airplane fly around a pole that supplied electricity to the airplane’s motor. At first, none of the airplanes even moved when power was applied–there was too much drag on the wheels and too much weight for the thrust available. The students refined their designs and finally got a couple airplanes to almost fly up into ground effect. We talked about what we learned and the importance of persistence. One crew took this to heart and kept working on their airplane during their free time. Finally, a couple weeks ago they achieved absolute success as their airplane took off and flew steadily around the pole at about one to two feet of altitude–the whole academy cheered as they did this, as we all knew how hard they had worked. Here are photos:

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Another set of students have worked for weeks on an originally designed trebuchet. They worked on this as their project during one day per week when I allow students a creative period in the makerspace to create or make whatever they wish within some broad guidelines. The students designed and built a trebuchet, but then repeatedly failed to launch a softball successfully. They kept persisting, however, and finally achieved success right before the end of school, launching a softball on a great arc over about one hundred feet of distance. Here are photos (note: one student, Alek, is missing from the photos since he was at the National Invention Convention that day):

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Finally, the 8th graders have worked on the Codrone project where the coding of a small model aircraft (drone) took much patience and persistence, as described in an earlier post. For both the 7th and 8th grade classes in the academy, all the students have learned that big STEM projects require persistence to achieve results, but that the payoff in personal satisfaction makes it worth it, and they are connecting this persistence to other areas of their life.

 

Celebrating Success in STEM

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On June 14th, the 8th grade students and their families of the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering celebrated their accomplishments as the first class to complete two years in the academy. Taking time to celebrate any success is important, and this event was to mark two years’ worth of significant achievements in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). We opened the event, then ate dinner, then reviewed what the students had done over the past two years–here is a summary:

  • Students exceeded the requirements for 7th and 8th Grade Science, as described in the Newington Public Schools curriculum by integrating appropriate aerospace and engineering skills and concepts, as well as Next Generation Science Standards.
  • Students completed Honors Algebra and Honors Geometry (both are high school credits), and more impressively, the students far exceeded the target growth in mathematical reasoning—60% of students are expected to show growth and meet a target, but 91% of our students met or exceeded their target with many far exceeding the target by double digits–I attribute our integrated curriculum to this achievement, as students used and applied math throughout all the academy courses.
  • Additionally, over the past two years, students successfully completed:
    • 25 Labs
    • 25 Engineering design projects
    • 7 Field trips
    • 2 Major STEM competitions (CyberPatriot, Connecticut Invention Convention)
    • Many presentations and other projects
  • Students also heard from 21 professional and college student guest speakers.

After my presentation, students and parents came up and gave their testimony on how the academy had helped the students grow and develop into mature young men and women. These testimonies varied in reasons, but they all showed what a positive experience being in the academy had been. The students also surprised me with a gift, an Air Force team jersey with the number 17, symbolizing the class of 2017, and with all the students’ signatures on it. I could not have been more gratified. Finally, students had fun with a photo area with lots of props with which they could take humorous photos. Here are photos of the evening’s events:

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Definition of terms:

Communist: A member of a Marxist political party, or any student who displeases Mr. Holmes for any reason.

Snowman: A human figure made of snow, or a student who is not a productive team member, but acts as if frozen in place.

Four of Spades: A playing card; also the repeated answer of an aircrew member suffering hypoxia in an altitude chamber, as seen on a training video.

Howdy: A standard greeting in Texas, and the appropriate way to warn fellow crew members on an airplane that flatulence has occurred.

Dynamic End of School Year Activities

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While many schools are winding down the school year with “fun” activities, videos, and other educationally light fare, the students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering are working on challenging and engaging activities right up to the end. The 7th graders, having just completed a lab comparing two types of model rockets, are starting an engineering project where each crew is designing their own original model rocket, then building and launching it as a test of the design. Students are ensuring the rocket is stable and are analyzing what forces will act on it. Here are some of the students launching their rockets during the lab while following all safety procedures laid out by the National Association of Rocketry:

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The 8th graders are completing a coding and engineering project where they built and coded small drones, then flew them. These are Codrones made my Robolink, and the students had to learn everything to do this project through online tutorials. The Codrone uses an Arduino platform, and Robolink provides modified C++ code that the students can use, then tailor to make the drone do what they want. Essentially, this is a robotics activity. This was a challenging project, involving coding and flying. Here are some photos of the students working with Codrones:

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Another task by one crew is to follow up on our Sundial Project and demonstrate the winning design to the Superintendent so that he can approve it to be built outside our school. To prepare this demonstration, the students made a full-size prototype with floor tiles, then laid them out and tested the sundial’s accuracy – it was spot on, as the last photo shows where Sydney is the gnomon and Richard is pointing to the current time, 3:45PM, which is right where Sydney’s shadow falls:

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Finally, the 8th graders just finished the earth science unit on astronomy, so we are looking at life skills using Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Dr. Stephen Covey. The students are studying what Covey said, then planning how to apply them in their lives now and in the near future in high school.  We are wrapping up an outstanding year, and giving the students these challenging activities makes for a good closure.

Four Academy Students Selected for National Invention Convention

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Four students from the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering will be going to the National Invention Convention/Entrepreneurship Expo (NICEE) in Alexandria, Virginia later this week. These students have won at each level of Invention Convention and earned a spot at the national competition. First they competed and won in our local Newington Invention Convention on March 16th, then they competed and won at the Central Regional Invention Convention on April 8th, then they competed and won at the Connecticut Invention Convention on April 29th. Statistically, the academy would have been lucky to have one student make the national competition, so to have four going is extraordinary. Over 17,000 students from Connecticut competed in Invention Convention this year, and about 100 of those will go to NICEE, or about 0.6%. We had all fifty academy students compete in our local Newington Invention Convention, and we have four students going to NICEE, or 8% of our original competitors – this means we had over ten times as many students make the nationals as the average school.

Here are our national competitors and the awards they got at the state-level Connecticut Invention Convention on April 29th:

7th grade Academy winners:
Jasmine Barber – Sno Away (rolling snow shovel that avoids back strain) – Recognized Inventor Award and Connecticut Science and Engineering Fair Award.

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Shiven Patel – Stop, Drop, and Spot (beacon to help find fire extinguisher in smokey room) – Recognized Inventor Award and Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering Award.

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8th grade Academy winners:
Alek Jorge – Smart Helm (fireman’s helmet with sensors and transmitter to alert incident commander if fireman is hurt or down) – Recognized Inventor Award, Connecticut Fire Marshals Fire Safety Award, and Angel Investors Forum/Connecticut Venture Group Young Entrepreneur Award (this award connects Alek with potential investors in his invention).

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Olivia Mullings – Temp Safe (alarm system if baby or pet is left in hot car) – Frank J. Link Family Award for Innovation in Technology Award, Boehringer Ingelheim Cares Foundation Life Sciences Award, United Technologies Corporation Moving the World Forward Award, and the McCormick, Paulding, and Huber Patent Award (this award was given last and highlighted as the top award which provides about $10,000 in legal services for a patent search and application).

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Ms. Garavel and I wish these students the best of luck at NICEE later this week!