STEM Academy Provides Enriched Learning

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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!”


Spiral Approach to STEM Learning

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Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering get to learn topics that most other students may not see until late in high school or in college, if at all. Examples include aerodynamics, astrophysics, aircraft and rocket design, and many other aerospace and engineering topics. While our school district promotes mastery based learning, which we use in our basic science and math classes, it is unrealistic for a middle school student to achieve mastery in aerodynamics or other advanced STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) topics–this is where a spiral approach makes sense.

What do these terms mean? Mastery based learning is the idea that students should learn a subject incrementally and achieve mastery, or a defined level of understanding and competence, before moving on to the next increment. We use this approach in both our science and math courses where we work with students to fully understand a topic before we move on to the next topic, and where each topic is defined by one or more state curriculum standards. In contrast, spiral learning is when students learn a subject at some level, then move on, but return later to learn more about the subject at a deeper level. Depending on the subject and the grade of the student, mastery of the subject may or may not be appropriate. This spiral approach is perfect for our elective courses in the academy where we want to repeatedly expose students to higher level concepts that are used in colleges and industry so that the students can envision themselves succeeding in these subjects some time in the future. The majority of US students do not pursue science or engineering, and one big reason is because they have no idea what a scientist or engineer does. By exposing students to firsthand experiences where they do science and engineering tests and build things using an engineering design process, they can see themselves becoming scientists and engineers someday. Using a spiral approach makes these types of experiences more meaningful, as the students see themselves improving in their knowledge and competence over time.

One example from the past week in the academy is a spiral approach to aerodynamics. The seventh graders did a basic project making a FPG-9 (a glider made from a 9-inch foam plate), then flight testing it outside. The glider has a rudder and elevons (combination ailerons and elevator), and students had to do an inquiry activity to see how the flight controls work. Later in the week, the students started an activity where they build a model aircraft or spacecraft, research it, and present their model and report to the class. These activities connected to what they were learning in science and in their flight simulator lessons. Meanwhile, the 8th graders, being more advanced in the academy program, are using a GDJ Flotec wind tunnel this week to measure the relative drag of the model rockets they designed and built over the past two weeks. Their task is to make the fastest possible rocket powered by an Estes A8-3 engine. The students are studying forces in science and vectors in geometry, so we put that together to discuss the net force on the rocket, and the students understood they wanted to reduce the weight and drag as much as possible in their designs. After wind tunnel testing, one crew repeatedly refined their rocket and cut the drag almost in half. We launch in the coming week. I do not intend for these students to achieve mastery in aerodynamics, but by periodically doing fun activities involving aerodynamics, and by making each activity more challenging than the last one, the students eventually achieve a high level of understanding in a complex STEM topic.

Here are photos of the 7th graders with their FPG-9s and models:


Here are the 8th graders using the wind tunnel and photos of each crew with their rocket:


Learning by Doing: Hands On & Minds On

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At the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering, students learn STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills in a variety of ways. In most lessons, the students are learning by doing what they are studying. In learning the engineering design process (EDP), Mrs. Garavel’s new 7th graders have first studied a process promoted by NASA for middle and high school students. Then they had a design challenge to make a miniature “cable car” that would slide down a fishline. Each crew (group of 4 to 5 students) followed the EDP in a step-by-step way to brainstorm, design, build, test and refine their cable car. In doing so, they learned the EDP in a way that was both fun and helpful in making the theory become clear in their minds. Similarly, the 7th graders, having just completed and presented research reports on various aircraft, flew the flight simulators to see how aircraft actually flew.

Meanwhile, the 8th graders got an engineering challenge to design and build the fastest possible model rocket powered by an Estes A8-3 engine. As second-year academy students, they know the EDP very well, but this project challenges them to take it to the next level. They have spent the first week just researching, brainstorming, and designing. I augmented their research by giving lecture/discussions on NASA hypersonics research and North Korea’s Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) program, both of which relate to rockets. Next week they will start building, and launches are planned the week after. Learning by doing–it’s not just hands on, but it is also minds on, engaging students and challenging them to think critically and solve problems while working in teams.

Here are photos of the 7th graders in action:


Here are photos of the 8th graders in action:


Building Teamwork Is First Step for New STEM Students

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We returned to school this week at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering. As a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) program, we foster 21st century skills along with the technical disciplines of STEM. This means we show students the importance of critical thinking, problem solving, communication, creativity, and teamwork. Teamwork is taught from the moment the students walk into the academy, as everything else builds on the their ability to work together. On day one, they join a “crew,” a student group of about four students with whom they do everything in the academy. We also have the 8th graders, the “old heads,” teach the new 7th graders many of our academy norms and basic skills. On the first day of school, the 8th graders cheered in the hallway to welcome the 7th graders as they entered the academy. Today, the second day of school, the 8th graders taught the 7th graders how to operate and fly the STEMPilot Edustation flight simulators, and they explained our makerspace. When we go on field trips, each 8th grade crew pairs up with a 7th grade crew and shepherds them around. In many other ways, the students learn that teamwork and collaboration lead to a more successful outcome.

Here are photos of each class by our academy “tail fin” sign–Ms. Garavel is with the 7th graders, and I am with the 8th graders:


Here are photos from today’s flight simulator and makerspace orientation:


Authentic STEM Lesson: Studying the Solar Eclipse

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Students and their families and friends of the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering came into school today (nine days before school starts) to observe and study the solar eclipse. This was an authentic STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) lesson where students got to do all four of the STEM skills in an authentic exercise of actual observation. In my previous post, I explained how I planned to set up a safe eclipse viewing using telescopes to project the image of the eclipse onto a shaded screen in a box–that’s what we did, and it worked out very well. I invited 75 students and their families, and I ended up getting 32 students with their families and friends, totaling more than 50 people. Our Superintendent, Deputy Superintendent, Principal, Assistant Principal, and some other school staff all joined in. This was more than I expected, given it’s still summer vacation when everyone has various commitments and vacations.

When everyone was arriving, I had telescopes, boxes, tape and paper ready to go. I also had posted a series of questions for students to answer as they observed the eclipse to guide their learning. I had a couple older students demonstrate how the projection viewer worked, and I gave a brief safety talk and pointed out the questions, then I let people form groups around each telescope, put together their boxes, then start viewing. Many people needed help getting the image to show up, but once they saw how to do it, they quickly caught on. While this was happening, I also had NASA’s live streaming of the event on a nearby classroom screen so people could watch that as they wished.

In our area of Connecticut, the eclipse was about 70% coverage with the peak at about 2:45, so after that, I called in the students in a circle, and we addressed the questions I had posted. Here is what I had asked:

  1. What is a solar eclipse? What is a lunar eclipse? Act out each with props (laid out in the classroom).
  2. What time would you expect to see a solar eclipse? a lunar eclipse? Explain why.
  3. What phase of the Moon is occurring during a solar eclipse? during a lunar eclipse? Explain why.
  4. Why are eclipses so rare?
  5. What motion are we observing during the eclipse–is the Moon or Sun moving relative to the other? Explain what this motion is. Calculate its angular speed.

They answered all of these questions with only a little help, and I was very pleased they got the idea of what we had observed.

Finally, I broke out eclipse cookies (Oreos) and demonstrated how to make a partial eclipse, a full eclipse, and a disappearing eclipse…

Here are photos from today’s observation and study:


Viewing the Solar Eclipse Safely

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Students and their families of the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering are invited to an eclipse viewing outside of the academy facility on Monday, August 21st during the partial eclipse over our part of Connecticut from 2:00 to 3:30 local time (Eastern Daylight Time)–the peak is at 2:45. A couple weeks ago, I tweeted a link to a article that gives an excellent interactive map and explanation of the eclipse, so if you are somewhere else in the US, you can use this to plan your viewing. My recommendation is to make a projection viewer, not to use the eclipse “safety” glasses. I’ll explain how to make a projection viewer, then I’ll explain why the glasses are a bad idea.

A projection viewer puts the image of the eclipsing Sun on a screen where you can see the image magnified and dimmed so that it’s safely and easily visible with the naked eye. The simplest projection viewer is using a box where you poke a pinhole in one side to let the Sun’s image through, then tape white paper to make a screen on the facing inner side of the box. You also need another opening where you can look through and see the image on the screen. Here is a NASA video that shows how to make such a viewer using an empty cereal box. A smaller and cleaner pinhole makes a clearer image, and a longer box (between the pinhole and the screen) makes a bigger image. If you look through and aren’t happy with the image, experiment with the projector to improve it — you have about an hour where the Moon is clearly overlapping the Sun, so it’s plenty of time to make changes. One major safety tip: DON’T LOOK THROUGH THE PINHOLE AT THE SUN. To aim the Sun through the pinhole, you just need to hold the box so its shadow is as narrow as you can make it–this means the box’ top where the pinhole is placed is squarely facing the Sun.

Another type of projection viewer is using a telescope to project the Sun’s image onto a screen. The advantage of the telescope is that it will make a much bigger image in a shorter distance due to its magnification, and it allows you to focus the image. Our academy telescopes have 90-degree eyepiece mounts that make them ideal for this purpose since we can project the image sideways into an open topped box with a big screen, and the sides of the box shade the image so it’s very visible. Here are photos from a previous post where I show how we did this to view sunspots earlier this year.

Sunspots 3

If your telescope does not have a 90-degree eyepiece mount, then make a hole in one side of a box to fit around your telescope so that the eyepiece points into the box and projects the image on the opposite inner side of the box. Sky and Telescope gives a good description of several ways to project the image in this article. A couple safety tips using a telescope eclipse viewer:

  • Never look through a telescope at the Sun, unless you have a solar filter on the telescope–and I don’t recommend using this either unless you are very sure about the filter and its safety qualifications. To point the telescope directly at the Sun, look down at the telescope’s shadow–make it as small as possible, then it will be facing the Sun.
  • Don’t use a telescope with a diameter bigger than about four inches, or else it may magnify the Sun so strongly that it burns the interior of the telescope. Similarly, use the lowest magnification eyepiece for the eclipse viewer.
  • Use a refracting telescope (one with a primary lens) vs. a reflecting telescope (one with a primary mirror) to also avoid damaging the telescope.

Finally, what about the eclipse “safety” glasses that everyone is scrambling to get? I think these are a bad idea for several reasons:

  • While many of the glasses are certified to be safe, there have already been recalls and findings of counterfeit, unsafe glasses. Given the huge popularity of this eclipse, there is a likely to be a fast growing black market for the glasses, and at this point I would not trust any of them.
  • Even with safe, certified glasses, people may not wear them properly–especially small children. The glasses are typically cardboard and ill fitting, so it’s easy for them to slip out of position. The glasses also might get torn or scratched, allowing sunlight through. Any unfiltered ultraviolet light will permanently damage your eyeball. The danger from eclipses is that the reduced sunlight is not as painful as full sunlight, so we tend not to blink and look away, but the sunlight that is still coming through can damage our eyes.
  • To use the glasses, you have to look up at the Sun. This means you are pointing your face at the Sun for an hour or more on a summer day. Similar to eye damage, sunburn is possible during an eclipse where you may not feel the Sun’s strength as much.
  • The angle you have to look up at the Sun is fairly high, as the Sun is being eclipsed around the middle of the day when the Sun is highest in the sky, especially so during the summer months. This makes viewing the eclipse uncomfortable, and many people will probably get out lawn chairs to lie on their backs to view it, making for full frontal Sun exposure.
  • All of the previous reasons are primarily safety reasons, but the final reason the glasses are not very good is that the image is disappointing. The Sun’s diameter is only about 32 arc minutes (about one half of a degree) across. It seems bigger because of its brightness. This means you will see a very small light circle eclipsed by a very small dark circle during the eclipse. In contrast, if you use a projection viewer as I recommend above, then you can make the image much bigger. Our telescope projection viewers easily make an image that is about six inches or more in diameter. With a telescope projection viewer, you can also easily see any sunspots on the un-eclipsed portion of the Sun.

For all these reasons, I recommend enjoying this eclipse with a projection viewer.

NOTE: Featured image of eclipse map is from

Lessons Learned on Invention Convention

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Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering have competed in Invention Convention for the past two years (the academy’s entire existence), so it’s useful to reflect on what went well and what could be improved. Invention Convention is an outstanding STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) competition where each student designs and builds an invention, either a model or a prototype, and produces a trifold display, then presents these products to a panel of judges. We participated in Connecticut Invention Convention (CIC) both years, and this year we had four students make it to the national competition, National Invention Convention and Entrepreneurship Expo (NICEE).

CIC begins with a local competition that a teacher or advisor sets up in the school or community–I set up one in our academy facility, and I required all of my students to compete and invited other teachers to let their students compete. I followed the CIC guidance, which CIC provides through excellent one-day training sessions with loads of downloadable materials. We set up the area similar to the way the state and national competitions are run with students in “judging circles” of about six students each. CIC provides a process for students to follow to design and build their invention, but I used a similar NASA engineering design process that our academy uses. To get judges for the local competition, I recruited volunteers from two aerospace firms in our town, GKN Aerospace and PCX Aerostructures. CIC recommends using outside, impartial judges, vs. teachers or parents, and I found this to be excellent advice. The first year I did all this, I gave my students some informal time to present their inventions to one another before the competition. Their feedback after the competition was that they had some difficulty knowing what to say to the judges. Therefore, this year I gave my students a few days to practice presenting. We started with a day where we brainstormed as a class on what to say, then we took those items and created a 2-minute pitch that every student practiced and gave to the class. In feedback after this year’s competition, many students felt the pitch was helpful, including those that competed all the way up to NICEE.

Our experience at each level of Invention Convention this year was very positive. I have posted previously on our local Newington Invention Convention, on the Central Regional CIC, and and on the state CIC. In summary, this year we had about 60 students compete locally, of whom nine (15%) were allowed by CIC rules to advance to the regional competition–the nine top inventors picked by the judges. Of these nine, eight (89%) advanced from the regionals to the state competition (CIC). Of these eight state competitors, four (50%) advanced to the national competition (NICEE) and won major awards at CIC. These percentages are very high, well above average, and I attribute them to our continual focus on creative work and engineering design in the academy and on our preparation for Invention Convention following CIC guidance.

This year was the first time we sent students to NICEE. The competition was held at a small venue, the US Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, VA, and only one parent was allowed in with each student. I thought this was unfortunate, as I would have liked to attend. Next year’s competition at the Ford Museum in Michigan should allow for more people to attend. However, I followed the competition online, including the awards ceremony that was streamed live. My observations were that the NICEE criteria for awards were generally in line with those of CIC, but NICEE seemed to emphasize commercial potential of inventions over solving problems in various fields. Nevertheless, my four NICEE competitors told me afterwards that they felt they were well prepared for the competition. In the end at NICEE, one of the four students (25%), Olivia Mullings, was a runner up for the Innovation in Electronics award for her Temp Safe invention that helped save babies or pets locked in a hot car. Here are photos from my four students who competed at NICEE:

Academy students Olivia, Shiven, Jasmine, and Alek prepare to compete in National Invention Convention and Entrepreneurship Expo (NICEE)



I strongly recommend Invention Convention as one of the best STEM competitions your students can enter. While I like team STEM competitions and have coached several of them, I think that the solo competition in Invention Convention is also very beneficial since it gives every student a chance. If you are a STEM teacher in Connecticut and use the materials that CIC provides, you should find it is not difficult to coach your students or even to set up your own local competition.