Invention Convention: The Ultimate STEM Program

Academy students and Mr. Holmes at Connecticut Invention Convention
Academy students and Mr. Holmes at Connecticut Invention Convention

If you are a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) teacher, or any teacher who wants to help students learn STEM skills, Invention Convention is a superb way to introduce and practice these skills. The first step is to take advantage of the training the Connecticut Invention Convention organization offers to teachers–I did it last fall, and it was extremely helpful. The second step is to decide how to incorporate Invention Convention in your classroom and school. There are different options. You can make it part of a class, which is what I did; you can make it the focus of a club or extracurricular group; or you can introduce it to your students, then let them work independently on their own. Making it part of a class is the best option, as you can engage all your students. It is also realistically doable, as the process Invention Convention requires students to use to develop their inventions is in line with the engineering design process in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Therefore, if you put a unit in your curriculum to introduce Invention Convention to your students, then use an occasional lesson to help your students prepare to compete, you will find you are following the NGSS and helping your students develop a passion for STEM.

Today three students from the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering competed at the Connecticut Invention Convention, a state-level competition held at UCONN Storrs. Alek Jorge invented the Lumi-Purse to solve the problem of trying to find items in a dark purse interior. Alexis Santo invented the SmartSleeper to solve the problem of electric and electronic devices remaining on all night when you fall asleep. Jasmine Barber, one of our new Academy students, invented the FridgTech to solve the problem of having expired food in a refrigerator. To be able to come to the state competition, these students had to earn top inventor awards at our local Newington Invention Convention on April 6th where four volunteers from GKN Aerospace judged 28 student inventors from grades 5 through 7. GKN Aerospace also generously hosted a sendoff dinner last night for these students. The state competition today had 500 volunteers from many organizations judging 850 student inventors from grades 4 through 8. At today’s award ceremony, Alek earned the Recognized Inventor award for being among the top third of student inventor, and Alexis earned the Eversource Award for promoting electric power conservation.

GKN Aerospace hosts sendoff dinner for inventors and their families
GKN Aerospace hosts sendoff dinner for inventors and their families
Academy Intern Kate Morehead with inventors at the state competition
Intern Kate Morehead with Academy inventors at the state competition

Other photos of the inventors and of the floor of Gampel Pavilion with 850 student inventions:


The award winners:



Combining Inquiry and Engineering Design in STEM Lessons

Lab activity with air launched paper rockets

Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering are learning about rockets. Our current science unit is on earth science, focusing on the internal and external structural changes of the Earth. We just finished plate tectonics, earthquakes, and volcanoes, and we are starting to look at the rock cycle, weathering, and erosion. To connect these topics to an aerospace theme, I have shown how scientists use remote sensing to detect, measure, and analyze these changes on the Earth, and on other planets and moons. Aerospace remote sensing uses aircraft and satellites, but we also looked at maritime remote sensing using ships and submarines. Now we are looking at how satellites and other spacecraft get to space, primarily using rockets. I timed this unit to coincide with spring so that we can build and launch rockets outside. It also coincides with our algebra unit on quadratic functions that describe how rockets change position over time.

Teaching about rockets involves two parallel strands–teaching how actual rockets launched by NASA and other space agencies work, and model rocketry where students see how a rocket operates firsthand. The first step in model rocketry is to learn some basics about rocket flight and safety. Therefore, we just did an inquiry lab where students built simple paper rockets launched by air pressure. It was an inquiry activity, as I did not give the students any guidance except to determine a dependent variable they could measure to determine the rocket’s performance based on an independent variable they could change. The lab also involved engineering design practices, as the students had to decide what modifications they made to their rocket to test its performance, then build those modifications and test them during multiple launches. The lab was a lot of fun, and a perfect way to get outside on a nice spring Friday. The following photos show the students designing and building their rockets:



The rockets were launched using a L-shaped 1/2-inch PVC pipe that was duct taped to an empty 2-liter soda bottle. The paper rocket slipped over the end of the pipe, and stepping on the bottle provided a burst of air pressure for launch. The record distance was over 130 feet–not bad for a piece of paper! Here are the students launching and testing their rocket  performance:IMG_2474


Intern Kate Morehead volunteers to measure distances of rocket launches
Note the rocket flying through the air at the top of the photo – they flew high and far!


Making Connections: Comparing Undersea and Aerospace Remote Sensing to Learn About Earth Science

NOAA's Okeanos Explorer
NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer

The week before spring break at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering, I decided to focus our lessons on a topic outside of our academy theme of aerospace – instead, we focused on the ocean. We are in the middle of our third major unit of grade-level science, earth science, and the current topic is plate tectonics, earthquakes, and volcanoes. I had tied this topic to our aerospace theme by teaching the students about remote sensing from the air and from space, and we learned how various aircraft and satellites can be used to observe plate tectonics and provide warning of earthquakes and volcanoes. We also learned about NASA missions to Mars that have observed plate tectonics and that plan to put a seismograph on the planet to detect earthquakes.

At the beginning of this unit, we had learned that much of plate tectonic theory had been developed after observations of the sea floor had shown major rifts and mountain chains. As I researched the topic, I realized the students would benefit from a short study of undersea plate tectonics and its effects. I found a treasure trove of material on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Ocean Explorer website. The way I connected this to what we had studied already was first to focus on undersea remote sensing using SONAR (sound navigation and ranging) and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), then to compare how they were used to the way the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum, drones, and satellites were used for aerospace remote sensing. Then I had the students pick undersea earth science topics that interested them, research the topics, then present their findings to the class. After we finished the unit, I asked the students to reflect on it and say how they liked studying the ocean and if it was helpful. Here are a few responses that are representative of the whole class and show they found it very helpful:

“I think that this past week learning about the ocean and remote sensing was good and reinforced my understanding of remote sensing. This helped me because everything tied together. The SONAR information was about remote sensing and that helped with the tectonic activity under the ocean. To conclude I thought that learning about the ocean was extremely helpful.”

“Overall, this week on learning about the ocean was really helpful and interesting to me. It helped me understand how the aerospace world and the ocean world relate when traveling and using remote sensing. It also made it clear to me how many of today’s technologies in different substances follow some of the same principles. To conclude I really enjoyed learning about the ocean this week because it helped me understand more about waves and different technologies.”

“I think that ocean week was a very good idea. It let me see that sound is useful for making discoveries, not just light. It also showed me that even though most people are interested in space and that sort of stuff, we really don’t know a lot about Earth. Overall this was a good project/week to do and it was good to take a break from space for a while since we have been taking about space for a couple of weeks now.”

“This helped me further understand how the Earth works with plate tectonics; it was also very interesting. What I want to do with this information is apply it to other planets or moons with tectonic activity like Mars or Europa. I also found that knowing how SONAR works could also be helpful in comparing other environments on other planets or moons.”

“This week on the ocean was a very helpful week for me. It helped me understand way more about the ocean. I was also able to make many connections along the way to the aerospace world. At first when you said we were going to be doing an ocean study, I didn’t think it would be useful, but after awhile when we were covering it, I realized how helpful it was to me.”

“I liked this week on marine science. We learned about how scientists use ROVs [remotely operated vehicles] to study areas thought to be an area of anomaly. These areas consisted of hydrothermal vents which and hotspots. These special occurrences happen all over the world, and we use different ROVs to locate and find out what they are doing. The Okeanos Explorer has two special ROVs to send out for different things. They have special instruments on them to find out if that area is an anomaly like a thermometer to see how hot an area is and a barometer to study depth and pressure. SONAR is used to show images of areas underwater with depth and location of the area. I learned a lot about ROVs and how they work and how they are used during this week. Thank you for the week on marine science.”

“Learning about the ocean was very useful because we have focused on exploration in the air and in space, but now we compared and contrasted ocean exploration with what we already knew. For example in the ocean you use sonar instead of radar to map out your location. I though it was all very interesting.”

“Studying the ocean helped us understand what we can do without involving the EM Spectrum. We are no longer confined to just using the EM spectrum because we learned that when it isn’t possible to be used, like in the ocean, we can used SONAR which uses sound. Studying how SONAR is used showed me how little the ocean is explored, much less the whole Earth, and it would be a good career field to look into. It also shows that when something doesn’t work, there is always something else just waiting to be discovered or used, and just because air, space, and the ocean are so different, it doesn’t mean you have to look in a completely different direction. Both use the basic concept of waves, which proves that what you learn in one area can be used in another area. I believe that we should get out there, as a nation and a world, and look at what the ocean and other unexplored things have in store for us.”

Invention Convention – A Great STEM Experience for Students

The students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering, plus a few others from our school district, all competed in a local Invention Convention yesterday. Invention Convention is a contest that is one of the best ways to interest students of all learning styles and abilities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). It is an individual effort – each student uses a basic, age-appropriate engineering process to design and build an invention that solves a problem that the student has identified. The inventions can be any size or scale, and the student must either build a physical prototype or a physical model of the invention. During the contest, the student presents his/her invention to a small panel of judges by showing the invention and using a trifold display board to help explain it. At our local Invention Convention, the judges were Eric Chandler, Ewelina Maselek, and Tiedah Evans, all engineers from a local aerospace firm, GKN Aerospace, led by the Director of Sales, Bruce Fiedorowicz. We had 28 students competing and about 50 spectators, made up of family, friends, and school staff. In the end, we had four finalists who qualified to go on to the Connecticut state-level Invention Convention on April 30th at UCONN’s Gampel Pavilion.

Here are the finalists  – Alexis Santo, Jasmine Barber, and Jaiden Woods (finalist Alek Jorge was not able to be present):


Santo awardBarber awardWoods award

Our judges from GKN Aerospace (left to right), Eric Chandler, Tiedah Evans, Ewelina Maselek, and Bruce Fiedorowicz:


The competition as the judges circulated among the inventors:

Judging circle 1Judging circle 2Judging circle 3Judging circle 4Judging circle 5Judging circle 6Judging circle 7

Seismograph Challenge: Incorporating Engineering Design into Science

At the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering, our 7th grade students are studying earth science now, with a focus on plate tectonics, earthquakes, and volcanoes. To connect this topic to our aerospace theme, we are looking at how scientists use remote sensing with aircraft, spacecraft, or remote ground sensors to study earth science. Since another theme of our academy is engineering, I also try to have some sort of engineering design challenge with every unit. This is right in line with the new science standards:

“The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) represent a commitment to integrate engineering design into the structure of science education by raising engineering design to the same level as scientific inquiry…students are expected to be able to define problems—situations that people wish to change—by specifying criteria and constraints for acceptable solutions; generating and evaluating multiple solutions; building and testing prototypes; and optimizing a solution.” (NGSS Release, April 2013)

Therefore, this past week, I gave students the challenge to design and build a seismograph, the device used to detect and measure an earthquake. Students learned how seismographs were first developed, how they have been used, and some simple ways to make one. They took these ideas and developed their own designs, then they built prototypes, then we tested them in our Makerspace by using a workbench as our “Earthquake Test Center.” It was a fun project, and all of the seismographs registered “earthquakes,” both large and small – we pounded on the workbench to simulate a large earthquake, and we wound up and released a little hopping bunny toy to simulate a small one. Here are photos of each crew (student group) and their design:


Here are photos of students testing their seismographs before the big test: