Academy Showcase – March 7th

Newington Public Schools will be hosting an informational showcase on both of our middle school academies on March 7, 2016 from 6:00 to 7:30 PM at Martin Kellogg Middle School in the Café. All students and family members who are interested in learning more about the Academy of Biomedical Sciences or the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering should attend. Teachers and students of the academies will be available to talk about their experiences as well as expectations of the program. Please note this will be an informal, drop in program, so you can come by anytime between 6:00 and 7:30 PM.

Any 6th grade student in Newington Public Schools may apply to either academy. Click HERE to download “Academy Application 2016” from my Resources page. This application and the essay (explained in the application) are due no later than April 8th. You may turn them in or mail them to:

Kim Davis, Director of Extended Learning
c/o NPS Curriculum Office
131 Cedar Street
Newington, CT 06111


Encouraging Creative Tinkering in a Makerspace

When I was hired to plan out the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering at John Wallace Middle School, one aspect I built in was a makerspace. According to Open Education Database, makerspaces are “DIY spaces where people can gather to create, invent, and learn” and “often have 3D printers, software, electronics, craft and hardware supplies and tools, and more.” It is more than a workshop. The ultimate makerspace can be an entrepreneurial incubator – a perfect example is the Tech Valley Center of Gravity in Troy, New York, which started as a humble makerspace in a basement and has mushroomed to fill a multi-story building housing a large makerspace, plus financial and legal advisors for new entrepreneurs and inventors. If you want to learn more about makerspaces and how to use them in school, I will be giving a workshop along with some of my students at the Tech2Learn conference on April 23rd at Quinnipiac University’s School of Education – this event will also have many other workshops to incorporate technology in the classroom.

For our middle school academy, the makerspace is a place where students can learn and practice various types of creative design. Examples include computer aided design (CAD) and 3D printing, wood working, arts and crafts, and basic reverse engineering, taking things apart to see how they work. Over the past several months since school started, I have given the students different design challenges and activities to learn all of these types of design. We are now focused on preparing for the Connecticut Invention Convention, and the makerspace is the perfect venue to design and build our inventions. I also have begun giving the students one day per week, “Free Fridays,” where they can design however and whatever they like. They have the freedom to tinker, build,  and experiment. To keep them somewhat focused, I only require that they set a goal and track their progress in meeting it. The students love this opportunity and have taken full advantage of it. The following photos give some idea of their activities:

Reverse Engineering in Makerspace
Brainstorming & Collaborating in Makerspace

Using CAD to 3D Print in the Makerspace:


Woodworking in the Makerspace:


Getting Guest Speakers to Engage Students with STEM

At the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering at John Wallace Middle School we invite in a guest speaker about twice per month on average. All of these speakers are people involved with aerospace or engineering in some way or another. My goal is also for the speaker’s main focus to match up with the current unit of study. Today we had Senior Master Sergeant Babcock, Connecticut Air National Guard, come and speak about the aircrew flight equipment career field, formerly known as life support. This career field involves the maintenance and preparation of equipment such as oxygen masks, parachutes, and survival gear that keep aircrew alive at high altitudes and in emergencies. This matched up well with our current science unit on the human body systems, especially the respiratory and circulatory systems, and with our current aerospace science unit on the physiology of flight and space travel. Sergeant Babcock gave an outstanding presentation explaining the effects of high altitude and low pressure on the human body, answered questions, and demonstrated various pieces of aircrew flight equipment which the students could then try on. The following photos show the students donning helmets, parachutes, and various oxygen systems. This lesson is an authentic application of the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) topics we are studying, and it is one of the best ways to reinforce these topics.


Teaching STEM with Various Design Challenges

Academy Students Design Food Supply for Mission to Mars
Academy Students Design Food Supply for Mission to Mars

Recently at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering at John Wallace Middle School, students delved some major topics by doing engineering design challenges: A mission to Mars, spacesuits, and bridges. Engineering design is one of the Practices in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), so incorporating engineering design projects into the curriculum is one way to meet the standards – and obviously a great way to help students learn how to think critically and solve problems.

For the first topic, we studied how NASA, SpaceX, and Mars One are all looking at missions to Mars. We then held a class debate on the pros and cons of going to Mars. We had studied aircrew life support systems a few weeks ago, so now we focused on the major life support systems required on a manned mission to Mars. With all of these systems, we also looked at how they protect and provide support at the cellular and human body system level. Finally, the students designed specific life support systems for the trip to Mars and for surviving on Mars. Each student crew (group of 4 students) had a different aspect of the challenge. Their designs were presented in Powerpoint presentations to the class, and they are on display in the academy. One presentation about supplying food for a mission to Mars, Yum, is featured in the picture here.

The second topic was all about spacesuits. We have been studying the physiology of aviation and of space, and this week’s focus was on the life support systems required by astronauts, especially spacesuits. The students started with a web quest on spacesuits – NASA provides outstanding interactive sites: 1) This one deals with spacesuit evolution over NASA’s history, and 2) this one shows a virtual spacesuit which can be examined piece-by-piece. Then I gave a demonstration with a vacuum bell jar how a vacuum may affect the human body. We saw how water boils at room temperature in a vacuum and how a marshmallow “Peep” expands in a vacuum, simulating the blood and gas pockets in the human body. Whenever I give such demonstrations, the students have to first hypothesize what they expect to happen, then they observe what actually happens, then they discuss the results and draw conclusions. They write this up in their science notebooks for me to grade later. Finally, the students did an engineering design challenge to make a spacesuit for a Peep. Each student crew got a small bag of materials and a Peep. They had to make the spacesuit so that the Peep would not expand and suffer in the vacuum bell jar, simulating the vacuum of space. Only one crew was successful the first time, while the rest had catastrophic failures. However, in the redesigns, most crews succeeded in protecting their Peeps. We concluded with a look at actual spacesuit design, and the students learned how spacesuits have a strong outer layer to contain the astronaut from expanding. The winning designs for the Peep challenge used this principle. Here are photos of the students making the spacesuits:


The final design challenge was our bridge challenge, mentioned in the previous post – this week we finally got to test the final designs. Here is Crew 5 and their winning design holding ten kilograms without breaking as it spans a 35-centimeter gap:

Crew 5's Bridge Holding 10 Kilograms

Here are other crews and their bridge designs that held from 5 to 8 kilograms before failing:


Teaching Methodical Engineering Design through Virtual and Hands On Bridge Building

Students Build a Prototype Bridge
Students with Their Prototype Bridge

At the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering at John Wallace Middle School, the students use a NASA Engineering Design Process (EDP) to tackle design challenges. Following a process is not natural for middle school students. Many want to rush in and start building. Others prefer to talk about design ideas as long as they can, debating various points. My goal is to teach them to see the benefits of each step of the EDP, and to understand that engineers are expected to produce something tangible within a reasonable amount of time. Each step of the EDP is important, but it’s also important not to get bogged down. What we learn time and again is that the making of a physical prototype is critical in seeing if our design is successful or not. Usually, the first prototype fails to meet expectations, so the continuous process of testing the prototype, refining the design, then retesting is vital to a successful final design. Therefore, with each design challenge, I am trying to shepherd the students through the research, brainstorming, and design selection stages so that they consider available options without wasting time, and then I push them to build their prototypes so they can see if the design works or not. About half the students like building things and do so quickly. The other half are hesitant and need coaching.

Our latest design challenge is a hybrid of two different science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) competitions, and it is working out well as a way to get students to design a bridge by methodically following the EDP. I used the Engineering Encounters Bridge Design Contest (formerly the West Point Bridge Building Contest) to help students follow the EDP up through design selection, and the Science Olympiad Bridge Building challenge to guide them to build, test, and refine a physical prototype. First the students learned about bridges and bridge design in a brief lesson. Then they entered the Engineering Encounters contest to learn about bridge building firsthand by making truss bridges and testing them using the contest’s online simulator. This contest is a superb STEM challenge by itself, as it encourages students to keep refining their designs and allows them to keep resubmitting improved designs to be ranked against other competitors’. The competitive aspect motivates students to keep trying to improve. The Engineering Encounters contest also gives the students a way to follow the first steps of the EDP to select a viable design before they build a physical prototype. The Science Olympiad bridge challenge requires a physical prototype, so I asked the students to use their Engineering Encounters bridge design as the blueprint for the prototype. To simplify the challenge, I also restricted the students to use only popsicle sticks and glue to build their bridges. We are at the point where students are finishing the building stage, so testing will begin next week. Overall, I am happy with the project and recommend this approach to other STEM teachers. Here are the students in the midst of researching and brainstorming their bridge designs: