Using Simple Models for Complex STEM Projects

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The 8th graders at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering have been working on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) project to design and build a prototype for a monumental sundial that we can display outside our facility. Each crew (student group of 4 to 5 students) is working on its own design, then all the crews will pitch their ideas to the administration. The winning design will be built outside as a class gift, once approved by school authorities.

Sundials can be made in many forms. The more accurate and all encompassing the design, the more complex the sundial becomes. Students have been researching and brainstorming ideas, and they have had many questions. To help them visualize how a sundial works, Ms. Garavel led the class in a project to build a simple, handheld paper sundial that we took outside and tested. First the students tried using the sundial horizontally, the way it is intended to be used. Then I challenged the students to put it on a vertical wall to see if the design could be altered to work there–and not just one vertical wall, but one facing south and one facing east. The students took up the challenge and quickly came up with logical changes that would make the sundial work in each situation.

Afterwards, we discussed this exercise as a class. The students understood how using a simple model like this could help in the early stage of any complex engineering project to give the designer a clear idea how something worked. They connected this exercise with something we had done earlier in the year when we copied the process the Wright Brothers had used by making simple airfoils that we tested in a wind tunnel before we made a more complex electric motor powered model airplane. We even discussed how this process could be useful outside of engineering, such as in a business that tests a product in a small focus group before committing a large amount of resources to produce it.

Here are photos of the students first making the paper sundials, then using them outside:

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