What is a STEM Academy? It’s an Integrated Approach to Learning–and Busy!

The Academy of Aerospace and Engineering at John Wallace Middle School in Newington, Connecticut is a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) academy – but what does that mean? There are different ways that question can be answered, depending on how the academy is set up. For me, in setting up this academy, it means that students have an integrated learning experience throughout their classes in the academy so that regardless of the class title, e.g., “Geometry” or “8th Grade Science,” the students are using and referring to science, technology, engineering, and math in every class. More specifically, whatever we discuss in one class, we try to use as a reference in the other classes. Not everything carries over every day, but the main topics do. We also emphasize how these subjects integrate more broadly with society and periodically discuss the ramifications of various STEM initiatives on society. For example, the 8th graders are about to learn about genetics and heredity, and we had a preliminary discussion about some ethical considerations of genetic engineering.

Integration of the various subjects also means we have a lot going on in our classes, and every day is different. In the last week of classes before winter break, we were especially busy. The 7th graders were finishing up an engineering project to design and test a propeller on a rubber band powered model airplane. The 8th graders all worked on improving the designs of their electrically powered model airplanes, a project developed by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). This project has been very challenging. When the first crews (groups of 4 students) designed and tested their airplanes, they didn’t even move. Now most crews have airplanes that are on the verge of taking off as they speed along the ground. Both projects have required students to use math and science as the basis of their designs, and good engineering practices to build and refine their designs. On top of all this, we hosted all of the 6th grade science classes in our school in a series of orientation visits, as these students will have the opportunity to apply to the academy in a couple months. On these visits, the 7th and 8th grade academy students gave a complete tour of the academy facility, then the 7th graders showed the 6th graders how to fly our STEMPilot flight simulators. We also did service projects in spirit with the holidays. The 8th graders collected items for the John Wallace Middle School Wish Club, and the 7th graders did a variety of collections and fundraisers for the Wish Club. It was a very busy week exemplifying an integrated approach to STEM.

Here are photos of the 8th grade crews with their electrically powered model airplanes:

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Here are photos of the 6th grade orientation visits:

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Here are some photos of the 7th graders working on their service projects:

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Learning Science in Many Ways

Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering in both 7th and 8th grade are starting the life science unit in their respective grade level science classes. The 7th graders will be focusing on cells, human body systems, growth, and reproduction. The 8th graders are focusing on reproduction, genetics, heredity, and adaptation. How could all these topics possibly relate to our aerospace and engineering theme? In the curriculum for both grades, I have tied these topics to aerospace by focusing on how the aerospace environment will affect life functions. In 8th grade, for example, we are about to start a week-long look at how reproduction could be affected by the environment of space, such as in the International Space Station. This is a vitally important issue if humans are to colonize space someday, and our students are examining this and other similar issues.

However, before we can start to look at the effects of the aerospace environment on a  life function, we have to learn about the life function itself first. Therefore, the 8th graders have beens studying reproduction for the past couple weeks. We started with an overview of what reproduction was, and how all organisms use either asexual or sexual reproduction to procreate. The student crews (groups of 4 students) each researched a different example, then presented their findings in class. We learned how bacteria, garlic, oak trees, sea sponges, salmon, and mice reproduce–and they were all different! Then we did a lab where we made a yeast culture (sugar water and baker’s yeast) one day, then examined the yeast cells asexually reproducing under a microscope the next day. This lab was very illuminating, as students could see the cells budding and dividing. Next, we held a debate where half the class had to research and defend why sexual reproduction was better, while the other half defended asexual reproduction. The students understood that both methods had pros and cons, but the debate made them really dig for the facts needed to support each position. Finally, to assess their knowledge, I had the students write a one- to two-page comparative essay on sexual vs. asexual reproduction in class, but with access to their notes.

Here are some photos of yeast cells that the students took with their phones through the microscope’s eye piece at low and high magnification:

Yeast cells at low magnification (40X) – all you can see is masses of cells and air bubbles.
Yeast cells at high magnification (400X) — now individual cells are clearly visible, including cells that are budding and dividing.

So what did the students think of this lab? The consensus was that they loved looking at the yeast cells firsthand and seeing asexual reproduction in real time, something they had generally been unaware of before we studied it. By using all these different ways to study reproduction, the students have gained a fairly deep understanding of the basic concept that organisms reproduce in different ways, and each way has advantages and disadvantages. Now as engineers, we will look at how to emphasize the advantages and mitigate the disadvantages for any organism, such as humans, that needs to live and work in space.

Learning STEM on Field Trips

Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering took a field trip today (their third so far this year) to two local aerospace manufacturers: GKN Aerospace and PCX Aerostructures. We have developed a relationship with both companies whereby we visit them to learn about aerospace manufacturing processes, and they provide mentors to our students for various science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competitions. By partnering with us in this way, these aerospace firms help students visualize what it means to have a career in aerospace engineering or manufacturing. The mentors from these companies also serve as role models for the students. The relationship is invaluable in meeting the academy’s and school district’s vision to prepare students for college, careers, and citizenship. Here are photos from the field trip: