academy of aerospace and engineering

STEM Learning through Games

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Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering were learning and reviewing aerospace topics today through games they made. Sometimes called game-based learning, this type of learning can engage students at a high level when they might otherwise be disengaged. For any topic, including STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), games can give students a chance to learn while competing with each other in a friendly game. Ms. Garavel had her class of academy 7th graders design and make the games, then play them with each other to test them. Today was the culminating assessment as the 7th graders invited the academy 8th graders to play with them. There were board games and computer games, all of which had an aerospace theme in line with our academy theme. Afterwards, the 8th graders had high praise for the creativity and attention to detail in the games–and they made it clear they would like a chance to play them again. Here are photos of the students playing today:



More on a Spiral Approach to STEM Learning

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In a previous post, I discussed how our integrated curriculum in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering uses a spiral approach to learning. This means we revisit concepts in different classes and over time so that students repeatedly get a chance to solidify their learning. One recent example of this approach is in how the students are learning about aircraft propulsion.

In science and aerospace science, the 7th graders first learned about the forces of flight, including thrust, the force of propulsion. They also studied Newton’s Laws and learned that the Third Law explains how thrust works for both propellers and jet engines. Then they studied types of engines, including reciprocating (piston) engines and jet turbine engines. Finally, Ms. Garavel tasked them to do an engineering design project to redesign the propeller on a Guillow Strato Streak rubber band powered airplane. Each student crew (group of 4 students) is designing and 3D printing their propellers and will test them on the Guillow model airplane this week. In two weeks, the academy is going on a field trip to Pratt & Whitney and to the New England Air Museum to learn firsthand about jet engines and propulsion systems. Therefore, the 7th grade students have had repeated lessons where they learned about Newton’s Laws of motion, the forces of flight, and propulsion systems. Here is a photo of our two 3D printers with two different crews’ propeller designs on the build plates and a Guillow Strato Streak between them to show the original propeller that they are redesigning:


The 8th graders have spiraled back to learn more about aircraft propulsion systems in a two significant activities. First, I assigned a project where each 8th grade crew plays the role of an engineering team in an airline company in which the CEO has tasked them to re-engine the fleet with new Pratt & Whitney Pure Power geared turbofan engines, then to re-imagine a use for the old jet engines. For the first task, the students had to research and learn about the new Pure Power engines, then select the right model for each airliner and present their plan back to the CEO (played by Mr. Dias, our Principal). For the second task, the students used the engineering design process to research and brainstorm a new use for the old jet engines. The students will present their idea in the form of a business plan back to the CEO again this Tuesday. The 8th graders are also doing a more hands on project, as I assigned them the Electric Cargo Airplane Challenge developed for high school students by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). This is a tough challenge where students design and build a model airplane powered by one or two (their choice) 6-volt electric motors with propellers. The students must build the airplane from scratch, though they may use stock propellers and wheels. The electric motors are also provided to them. The electricity is supplied by a wire to the airplane that is connected to a heavy pole around which the airplane flies. The thrust is the same for every crew, since they all use the same power source, so the real challenge is to minimize weight and drag to effectively increase the net force (thrust) available.

I tried this project for the first time last year, and none of the six crews were able to really get their airplanes to fly, except for one crew that kept working on the airplane and finally got it flying after the project was officially finished. I shared this experience with my students this year, and they listened and improved on last year’s performance — so far, all three crews that have done the project have successfully flown their airplanes after some redesigning. The other three crews will start building their airplanes this week. We will have a fly off of all six crews in about three weeks. Here are photos of the first three crews with their airplanes, and some screen shots of a video of the first successful airplane to fly (the airplane of Crew 4, the second crew shown here):

IMG_8505BIMG_8505AIMG_8505CElectric Airplane 1Electric Airplane 2Electric Airplane 3

When we did the flight tests of these three aircraft this past week, we had some college engineering students from UCONN’s chapter of AIAA visiting us. They presented to the students about UCONN’s engineering program, and they observed and mentored the academy students. After they watched this flight test, and saw the 7th graders busily working on their 3D printed propeller project, one of the AIAA students told us, “I can’t believe how much these students know and what they are capable of doing here.” He was surprised that middle schoolers knew anything about aerodynamics or propulsion or that they could do engineering projects. The reason this is possible is because of our integrated curriculum and spiral approach to learning.

Helping Students See Themselves in College STEM Programs

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Students from the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering visited the University of Connecticut (UCONN) campus at Storrs today. We were hosted by the UCONN Engineering Ambassadors, a service organization made up of undergraduate engineering majors who do outreach to middle and high school students to show them what it takes to succeed at college as a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) major. The Ambassadors gave us an outstanding tour of the campus, they provided a panel discussion with a diverse group of engineering students, and they led us in some fun STEM challenges. The 8th grade academy students also got to tour UCONN’s cogeneration plant, a uniquely energy efficient power plant. This field trip gave the academy students a firsthand look at what it’s like to be an engineering major at a big university, and it taught them what it takes to succeed there.  Here are photos from the trip:


Helping Students See Themselves in STEM Careers

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Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering get many opportunities to see themselves pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) careers later on in life. I frequently let them know that a STEM career may not have the word “science,” “technology,” “engineering,” or “math” in the job title — any career can involve STEM skills if you have to explore new topics, think critically, or solve problems. Nevertheless, by majoring in one or more of the STEM disciplines in college, students are more likely to be able to use these skills in whatever career they choose. Additionally, employers are saying there are not enough STEM graduates to fill available positions, so students who major in STEM fields are much more likely to get multiple job offers.

One way we help academy students understand college STEM programs is by inviting in the UCONN Engineering Ambassadors. These are undergraduate engineering students at UCONN in Storrs, Connecticut, who volunteer to reach out to middle and high school students to explain what STEM is and what it’s like being a STEM major. They came to the academy two years ago, and we had three of them come to the academy this past week. One ambassador gave a presentation on how SpaceX is planning a massive worldwide internet service, then he explained how he had grown up in Haiti and New York City before coming to UCONN. The other two ambassadors explained how the Hubble Space Telescope works, and they also described their personal backgrounds. Our students were full of questions, and in the reflection afterwards, they showed they learned a lot about college STEM programs from the Engineering Ambassadors. Here are photos of the visit:


We have follow on activities with the Engineering Ambassadors when we go to UCONN on a field trip later this month. They will give us tours, have a panel of students with whom our students can talk, and have some fun STEM activities for us. Overall, the Engineering Ambassadors do an outstanding job in helping students have a vision for STEM in college and beyond.

Another group that helps our students envision themselves in STEM careers are the UCONN engineering students in the local chapter of AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics). These students came to the academy last year, and they will come later this month to help mentor the 8th graders who are doing an AIAA engineering challenge and to speak to all our students about engineering at UCONN.

Finally, we have mentors and speakers come from various aerospace firms to the academy. This year so far, we have had mentors from PCX Aerostructures come in and mentor the 8th graders in the AIAA engineering challenge, and we will have a guest speaker for all students come from PCX, GKN Aerospace, and Sikorsky Aircraft. Additionally, we plan to visit Pratt & Whitney in December on a field trip, and the students will get to learn about careers there. All of these companies demonstrate how STEM graduates can have challenging and fulfilling careers.


Teaching the F-Word in STEM: Failure

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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

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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

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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!”