What Is the Purpose of a STEM Academy?

Final flight test 2
Students flight test gliders they designed and built after weeks of studying aeronautics

Another school year is about to begin, and this is the second year of operation for the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering at John Wallace Middle School. This year, we add 25 new 7th graders to our program, while last year’s 7th graders advance to 8th grade, making for 50 total students. Students in both grades will take their science classes and two aerospace and engineering electives in the academy, and most 8th graders will also take math there. Nevertheless, math is integrated into all subjects, as all subjects are integrated together. But what is the purpose of an academy that stresses science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in its curriculum?

Academy students and Mr. Holmes at Connecticut Invention Convention

The purpose of a STEM academy is obviously to improve students’ perception and abilities in STEM. By becoming more adept at science, technology, engineering, and math through daily emphasis and practice, the students can begin to envision themselves in a STEM college program or a STEM career field. There are current and forecast shortages in STEM, so this helps society. STEM careers are challenging and rewarding, so this also helps the students.

Students design a seismograph after studying NASA’s use of seismographs on Mars

There is a more fundamental purpose of a STEM academy program – to prepare students for life, regardless of the college major or career path they choose. Students in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering learn to think critically and solve problems. They practice asking questions, then seeking answers in a scientific way. They find solutions to problems using an engineering design process. They support their conclusions or solutions with facts and mathematical reasoning, and they learn to explain them simply and clearly. All of these skills prepare students for life in a technical society. We also acknowledge that STEM skills alone are not always enough to solve all types of problems or answer all types of questions, so we discuss more holistic approaches whenever appropriate. The goal is that students are ready to succeed in their future education, including college, in their careers, and as informed citizens.

Group photo UCONN
Academy Students and Intern Kate Morehead on field trip to UCONN

For parents of the academy’s new 7th grade class, this year is going to be a big change from the past. Your students will go through an adjustment period, then take off in their learning as they realize what they can do. Here is advice from last year’s 7th graders:

“Welcome to the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering! You just got accepted into a great program.”

“You will find it much different than all the other classes you have. There will be more thinking and effort.”

“You are going to have more freedom, but with more freedom comes more responsibility.”

“Another tip is changing your mind from operating like a 6th grader to a much older high school student. I’m not telling you to grow up really quickly, I am just telling you to be more mature.”

“We get work done, but  ALWAYS HAVE FUN.”

“Over the year that I have been in the Academy, there have been so many interesting and exciting projects and labs (far more than the regular classes).”

“You don’t just learn academics. You learn many teamwork, leadership, cooperation, and responsibility skills.”

“The academy is a great opportunity and I would not back down from it. I hope that you and your new classmates have a fantastic year at this new academy and hope you enjoy the experience!”

Contact me anytime with questions. I look forward to another great school year!

CyberPatriot team fall 2015
Academy’s CyberPatriot team for 2015-2016

Learning about Drones, RPAs, and R/C Aircraft

This summer is a good time to explore the Academy of Model Aeronautics clubs in your area – learn to fly model aircraft or drones with these experienced flyers.

Academy of Aerospace and Engineering

Over the past couple weeks, I have wanted to learn more about “drones,” a term that I found out is incorrect – the proper term is remotely piloted aircraft, or RPAs. Before these modern aircraft were in the news, they used to be just radio controlled aircraft, or R/C aircraft. What’s the difference? Drones are unmanned aircraft typically used for target practice. RPA’s are sophisticated aircraft used for many different missions and piloted by a crew on the ground using satellite signals. R/C aircraft are simply model aircraft flown using a remote control system that transmits the control signal from a handheld controller to the aircraft using a radio signal. For the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering, flying small scale R/C aircraft will be part of the curriculum. Initially students will fly store bought models, then they will design and fly their own creations. To teach all this, I am getting…

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What the NGSS Doesn’t Say: Students Learn from Failures

At the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering students have been using model rockets as a medium for learning all aspects of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). First they studied the science of rocketry and its history. They also compared rockets and rocket engines to what they had learned about aircraft and jet engines. They learned how to measure altitude using basic trigonometry, a new type of math for them, but related to what they already knew. They did a science lab where they compared the performance of two different commercial model rockets. Then they did an engineering design challenge where they chose one of the two commercial model rockets and improved its design to make it fly higher. This challenge ended with launch tests on May 26th, followed by a class discussion and an analysis of the results. Six student crews (groups of 4 to 5 students) had each redesigned a rocket, changing the body tube, fins, recovery system, and/or nose cone to reduce weight and drag. Out of the six rockets, four achieved the goal of flying higher than the average height achieved by the commercial rocket, as measured during the science lab. One of the six proved to be unstable on launch and went out of control, tumbling end over end and not flying above about 20 feet. One blew up on the launch pad because it would not fly up the launch rod due to faulty construction. Because we had followed the Safety Code of the National Association of Rocketry, everyone was well clear of the launch area and nobody was ever in any danger from these mishaps. Therefore, four crews achieved success, and two crews failed in their design. I told the students I was glad these failures had happened…what?! Let me explain why.

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which were adopted by the state of Connecticut this year and guide our curriculum, have a major section dedicated to engineering design. I incorporated these standards in the academy curriculum as I wrote it last year. Here are the standards for middle school students that I use:

  • ETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems
    • The more precisely a design task’s criteria and constraints can be defined, the more likely it is that the designed solution will be successful. Specification of constraints includes consideration of scientific principles and other relevant knowledge that are likely to limit possible solutions. (MS-ETS1-1)
  • ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions
    • A solution needs to be tested, and then modified on the basis of the test results, in order to improve it. (MS-ETS1-4)
    • There are systematic processes for evaluating solutions with respect to how well they meet the criteria and constraints of a problem. (MS-ETS1-2), (MS-ETS1-3)
    • Sometimes parts of different solutions can be combined to create a solution that is better than any of its predecessors. (MS-ETS1-3)
    • Models of all kinds are important for testing solutions. (MS-ETS1-4)
  • ETS1.C: Optimizing the Design Solution
    • Although one design may not perform the best across all tests (my underline), identifying the characteristics of the design that performed the best in each test can provide useful information for the redesign process—that is, some of those characteristics may be incorporated into the new design. (MS-ETS1-3)
    • The iterative process of testing the most promising solutions and modifying what is proposed on the basis of the test results leads to greater refinement and ultimately to an optimal solution. (MS-ETS1-4)

What these standards do not specifically say is that a design may fail to solve the problem. In other words, the student should expect that a design not only “may not perform the best across all tests,” but it might actually not perform at all — it might be a complete failure, as two out of the six rocket launch tests were. But what failure shows in stark reality to students is that the design did not work, and if this lesson is emphasized correctly, students will learn much more and remember the lesson much better than if everything worked and went smoothly. How did I do this with the rocket failures? I first have told the students all year that failure is part of the journey to success. We looked at many real-world examples, especially the record of SpaceX’s attempt to bring a rocket back and land it after launch. In December, right after SpaceX had achieved success in this attempt for the first time and after many failed attempts, we had a guest speaker, Eric Womer, who was a graduate of our middle school and is now a propulsion engineer for SpaceX. He explained very clearly how SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk, have persevered through many failures to achieve success. Throughout this school year, my students have done several engineering design challenges, and in each one, some crews succeeded and some failed in their initial designs. Each time we discussed the results and learned from them. Now students are used to failure as a normal consequence of trying something new.

Yesterday I attended the graduation of my oldest son from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. One of the speakers at the graduation was renowned physicist, Steven Weinberg. The gist of his speech was that he learned the most in life from the times he was completely wrong about something. He gave a few examples, but essentially he was saying that he had learned from his failure to understand something correctly. In seeing his failure, he had been forced to reexamine what he had believed to be true, then he started over and rebuilt his beliefs. This is the same process as an engineer follows when a design proves to be a failure. In all cases, failure is just one of the expected steps on the road to new discoveries and ultimately to success. We are learning this at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering, and maybe someday it will be in the NGSS.

Here are photos from the launch tests:

Six Redesigned Rockets Ready for Launch
Successful Launch Begins with Good Ignition and Flight Up the Launch Rod
Successful Launch Clears the Launch Rod and Flies Straight Up
Successful Launch Climbs Straight Up (Curvature Due to Wind)
Watching a Successful Launch
Rocket Fails to Launch and Blows Up on Pad Due to Faulty Construction

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:


Academy Students Transition from Physical Science Unit to Life Science Unit Using Systems Analysis

The students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering at John Wallace Middle School are transitioning to a new science unit, and my challenge was to make the transition smooth and coherent from a learner’s perspective. Our district’s 7th grade science curriculum follows the state standards and has three major units, each taking about three months: physical science, life science, and earth science. We just finished the physical science unit dealing with work, energy, and power. The life science unit covers cells and human body systems, while the earth science unit covers landforms and geology. At first, it appears these units have nothing in common in terms of content. We have separate texts and separate types of labs for each. I have tied these units together somewhat by integrating them with aerospace and engineering topics. Nevertheless, the transition from one to another could be abrupt. Abrupt transitions hamper learning, as students have difficulty connecting one topic with another. My solution was to examine things at the systems level to provide the students an overarching view transcending all the units.

In the previous science unit covering work, energy, and power, I had connected these science concepts with how an aircraft flies, how it is controlled, and how it is propelled. The students have learned all about aircraft, especially airplanes. Therefore, for this transition, we started by doing a capstone project where I had them look at aircraft at the systems level. Each crew (student group) was assigned a different system to research and explain to the class. These included airplane electrical, hydraulic, fuel, environmental, oxygen, fire protection, and landing gear systems. In previous units we had already covered the flight control and propulsion systems. As the students presented their topics, we discussed how each system was made up of parts that contributed to the system’s purpose, but how they also interacted with other systems. For example, the landing gear system uses hydraulic and electrical power to operate. We then had a discussion how all this related to the human body and its systems. The students realized that while the human body has separate systems that we study, they also interact and interconnect. The nervous system and circulatory system, for example, are intertwined with all of the other systems in our bodies. While the students’ presentations of aircraft systems showed them as separate entities, we also discussed how we had seen the aircraft systems on a C-130 transport airplane on a field trip as being all together in a space–all of the wires of the electrical system, the tubing of the hydraulic system, and the mechanisms of the flight control system were all visible in the cargo compartment, mashed together in tight spaces. We connected this picture to how the human body is not a series of neatly discrete systems like a textbook picture, but also seems to have everything wrapped together and stuffed into our bodies. In the end, the students concluded their look at airplanes at the systems level, and began the life science unit also at the systems level.

After this transition, I explained that we would start by looking at the human body systems at their smallest component level, cells. We will then see how these connect as tissue, and how the tissue makes up organs and other parts of our human body systems. The students in their discussions have managed to make this transition and these connections, so I feel it was an effective approach. We finally started our exploration of cells with a lesson on microscope use. As I do with all equipment or technology that we use in the classroom, I started by posting the microscope operating manual online as a homework assignment to read and study. The next day, we had a “quiz” where each crew explained part of the manual to the class. Therefore, before we touched a microscope, we had reviewed how it was constructed, how it operated, and how to use it properly. Next, I assigned an inquiry lab where students used microscopes to examine a piece of paper with print on it, then a leaf and some grass. They sketched the microscope and labeled its parts, and they sketched each object they examined under the microscope. Our next lessons will begin to focus on cells as the students understand what the microscope is showing them. The photos here are from the first microscope lesson.

Microscope 6Microscope 5Microscope 4Microscope 3Microscope 2Microscope 1

Academy Students Learning through an Integrated Curriculum

At the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering at John Wallace Middle School, students are learning through an “integrated curriculum.” An integrated curriculum can take many forms, but they all integrate the traditional disciplines, such as science and math, into a more coherent approach. Instead of teaching these subjects in isolation, where each class has no relation to the next, in an integrated curriculum the students experience the same theme or broad topic throughout all of their classes. My approach has been to plan the four academy courses (Algebra I, 7th Grade Science, Principles of Aerospace Science, and Innovations in Aerospace) together and in synchronization. I planned the major units around a theme, and I plan my weekly lessons so that the topics have as much commonality as possible. The three science courses have been fairly easy to integrate. The challenge has been to integrate the Algebra I topics, as that course has a strict curricular flow. Nevertheless, we use the Algebra topics continually in the science classes, so I have been able to integrate the math into the science more than I initially expected.

Crew 1 winning prop redesign
Crew 1 with Best Redesigned Propeller

A typical example of this integrated curriculum is the most recent unit we covered: power and propulsion. We started with some initial lectures and discussion in 7th Grade Science following up on earlier work on energy and work. The students learned the concept of power, then tried to measure power in a lab experiment using rubber band powered model airplanes. In Principles of Aerospace Science they learned about various aircraft propulsion systems, the source of power in an airplane. They also flew several different aircraft on the flight simulator and compared their engine power in Innovations in Aerospace. Next we focused on propellers. The students learned how to reverse engineer something in Innovations in Aerospace, then applied this knowledge by reverse engineering the propeller on the rubber band powered model airplane. In combined sessions of all three science classes, the students put the propeller design into a computer aided design (CAD) program, researched and brainstormed ways to improve it, redesigned the propeller to provide more thrust, printed the new design on the 3D printer and flight tested it. Throughout the project, we were studying mathematical functions in Algebra I, so wherever possible, we looked at how functional relationships existed in our science work. At the end of this project, Crew 1, which happens to be all girls this quarter, had the best propeller design as seen in the photo above. During their last flight test, the girls launched this model airplane, and it flew level and straight for a considerable distance–very impressive. In a follow on theme-based project looking at jet engines, the students had a similar progression of integrated lessons, ending with our current project building models of jet engines, seen in the photos below. The hands on assembly of a jet engine kit presented challenges in following directions and tool usage, but the students have done well.

Crew 1 jet kitCrew 2 jet kit.JPGCrew 3 jet kitCrew 4 jet kitCrew 5 jet kitCrew 6 jet kit

However, another aspect of an integrated curriculum is to have learning experiences beyond the classroom. Some things we are doing in this regard are to have quarterly service projects and to compete in STEM competitions. For the service projects, I told the students to plan what they wanted to do–I only gave them a timeframe and general theme to follow. Our first project was in November with the theme of Veterans Day. On their own, the students came up with the idea of selling hand-made bracelets at lunch in the cafeteria and donating the money earned to the Connecticut Veterans Hospital in Newington. Additionally, the students made a large card dedicated to veterans and asked the bracelet customers to sign it. We presented the funds, $171 in total, and the card to Mr. Joe Canzanella of the Connecticut Veterans Hospital Voluntary Services this past week, as seen in the photo below. He spoke to our students afterwards and thanked them and Mr. Milardo, our principal.

Service project 1st qtr

Finally, our current STEM competition is CyberPatriot, a cyber security competition sponsored by the Air Force Association and Northrup Grumman. Here is our team, along with our intern, Kate Morehead, at the start of the six-hour round of the competition yesterday.

CyberPatriot team fall 2015

Using an integrated curriculum, we are breaking new ground and giving our students a holistic learning experience that should prove to be far more effective than traditional classes.

New Intern at Academy Mentors Students in STEM and CyberPatriot

Kate Morehead, Intern with Academy of Aerospace and Engineering
Kate Morehead, Intern with Academy of Aerospace and Engineering

The Academy of Aerospace and Engineering at John Wallace Middle School has a new intern, Katherine “Kate” Morehead. Kate was an outstanding physics student of mine at Ridgefield High School a few years ago. In addition to having exceptional math and science skills, she earned the Civil Air Patrol Aerospace Education Excellence Award along with her class by conducting several science experiments and activities related to aerospace. Now she is a junior at the University of Connecticut at Storrs majoring in marketing in the School of Business with a minor in statistics. She and I reconnected this past summer through LinkedIn where I saw she was an intern with FireEye, a Silicon Valley company focused on cyber security services. I was looking for a mentor for a cyber security STEM competition, CyberPatriot, and I contacted Kate to see if she could help us. Not only did she enthusiastically agree to help, but she offered to come to the academy every Friday to work with the students. I worked with the Newington Public Schools personnel office, and we made Kate into an official intern. The plan is for her to come in every Friday when the students have academy classes, at least through Kate’s fall semester. She has worked with the students almost every Friday since October 2nd on CyberPatriot, and she has jumped in and helped with all of their other classes as a STEM tutor. She is a welcome addition to the academy as she promotes a love of learning that is motivating and encouraging for the students.