Teaching the F-Word in STEM: Failure

Each year, new students in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering go through an adjustment phase as they learn our STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum and our method of exploratory learning. Almost gone are scripted activities, and instead students are tasked to develop their own experiments, research topics of their own choosing, and build objects of their own design. While many students find this academic freedom exciting, many also find it disconcerting and even frightening–they might fail! They often have never failed at anything in school. They have always followed directions and gotten straight A’s. Now they feel threatened by the uncertainty of choosing their own path in learning and discovery.

This fear of failure is especially true as students begin to design and build things in our makerspace. Many an academic whiz kid is all thumbs in using tools, and their ideas on paper do not necessarily come out as expected when they try building them. Yet, they learn that our grading of these projects using our Engineering Design Process Rubric is not based on how well they hammer and glue things together, but in how well they think through a design and go through a deliberate process to improve it. None of our students following the engineering design process will “fail.” We also study the trials and tribulations of real-world inventors from the Wright Brothers to Elon Musk and SpaceX, and students see how the failures of many early inventions eventually led to success as the inventors persevered to make improvements. Eventually, our students learn that failure is not the F-word, but a necessary step on the path to success.

The first makerspace project our 7th graders do tends to be where they face failure for the first time. This project requires each crew (group of about four students) to design and build a Rube Goldberg machine that demonstrates a series of simple machines, one of the main topics in their science class. It is a good first makerspace project since the students can use junk materials and scraps that cost almost nothing and allow for mistakes. The culminating event is a demonstration of the machines by each crew. Often, the machines don’t work, or they break down during the demonstration. Many of the students get upset under the pressure to present. But in the end, the students learn it’s okay if everything does not work out, as long as they can explain why and show how to improve their designs. This year our 8th graders also came out and offered their encouragement during the Rube Goldberg machine demonstrations, and many of them said how they had learned to embrace failure. Having spent over a year in our academy, they now know that failure is not the F-word, but an expected part of inventing and learning.

Here are photos of the students as they build their machines, then demonstrate them:



Extending Learning through Field Trips

This week, students in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering went on a field trip to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. We started our tour of the museum by seeing the planetarium show, Dark Universe, narrated by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. This was a 4D show that gave an outstanding explanation of the origin of our universe, explaining the Big Bang theory and the role of dark matter and dark energy in making up the universe. After the show, the students went in six crews, or groups, and went through a cycle of six stations in the museum that Ms. Garavel and I had planned out. The stations were parts of the museum where the exhibits related to the middle school science curriculum. At each station, the students had 30 minutes to look at the exhibits, then answer an open ended question assigned to each grade level. The day after the trip, we went over their answers and discussed the trip. Students varied in what their favorite part of the museum was, but the planetarium show was a clear favorite.

Field trips provide an extension of what we learn in the classroom, and they especially help extend STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) lessons. While we can show videos and discuss topics such as the Big Bang or evolution in science class, only at a museum like this can students see a world-class show that explains the Big Bang theory or an extensive fossil collection that explains evolution.

We have three more field trips planned this school year, and all of them will provide extensions of our STEM lessons. In November, we will tour the UCONN campus with the Engineering Ambassadors, undergraduate engineering students who volunteer to show middle and high school students what engineering is all about. In December we will tour the New England Air Museum and Pratt&Whitney’s Customer Training Center, and at both locations we will see aircraft and engines that students have studied in the classroom. In April, we will attend a planetarium show and get a campus tour at Central Connecticut State University, learning about astronomy and learning about our closest four-year college. All of these field trips will extend student learning in STEM.

Here are some photos from the field trip to the American Museum of Natural History:


STEM Academy Provides Enriched Learning

Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering have an integrated STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum that not only interconnects the four classes that students take, but also enriches their learning with diverse activities and experiences. Here are examples of activities students have done over the past two weeks with photos:

The 8th grade academy students taught the 7th grade academy students how to use different tools in the makerspace safely. The 7th graders can now begin doing projects that require building prototypes by using the makerspace resources.


The 8th graders finished a major engineering design project where they worked to design, build, and launch the fastest possible model rocket. Launching over three days, they achieved 29 successful launches of their six rockets (one per crew). Student Vidhisha Thakkar was the launch control officer, managing all launch operations.

To learn more about cybersecurity and prepare for the CyberPatriot competition, both 7th and 8th graders listened to guest speaker and CyberPatriot mentor, Emily Failla, as she described the intricacies of Windows operating systems and the security features they have.


As they continue to learn about aircraft and the science of flight, the 7th graders did a lab comparing the flight performance of two store-bought balsa gliders. Soon they will get an engineering project to design, build, and test an improved glider.

The 8th graders got an assignment to help NASA with their Asteroid Redirect Mission in case an asteroid comes hurtling towards Earth. Their project is to design a way to use rockets to push an asteroid far enough off course so that it misses Earth. This requires an application of the concept of impulse, or applied force over time, an extension of what they are learning in 8th Grade Science with Ms. Garavel.


Finally, a few academy students took advantage of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) Young Eagles program where experienced pilots from EAA take up students on free flights. While this is not an official part of our program and not sponsored by our school district, we have had students participate in the Young Eagles program several times with EAA Chapter 27 at Meriden-Markham Airport.

Again, all these activities happened over the past two weeks, and this is only some of what we do in the academy. Enriched learning motivates students to do their best. One 7th grader was asked if the academy was what he thought it would be, and his response was, “Oh no, it is so much more than I imagined!”