academy of aerospace and engineering

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.

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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

Teaching Persistence is Key to STEM Learning

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Students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs often tackle difficult projects, and if they have short-term expectations, they can become discouraged–instead, they need to learn persistence. Students in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering tackled several STEM projects recently and showed outstanding persistence in achieving results.

The 7th graders learned the basics of model rocketry in May by first taking and passing a safety test, then by building and launching Estes Alpha rockets–I covered this in a previous post. After that, the students have designed, built and launched original model rockets of their own design. They were required to make all the parts of the model rocket themselves–they designed and 3D printed nose cones, they hammered out metal to make engine retainer clips, they made fins, and they put it all together and measured the stability of their rockets. At each stage, things went wrong, but the students fixed the problems and pressed on. In the end, all six crews successfully launched and tested their model rockets. Here are photos of each crew with their uniquely designed rockets:


The 8th graders also showed persistence in a few recent activities. First, one crew continued to refine the design of an electrically powered model airplane that was part of an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) STEM challenge we did this winter. The goal was to have the airplane fly around a pole that supplied electricity to the airplane’s motor. At first, none of the airplanes even moved when power was applied–there was too much drag on the wheels and too much weight for the thrust available. The students refined their designs and finally got a couple airplanes to almost fly up into ground effect. We talked about what we learned and the importance of persistence. One crew took this to heart and kept working on their airplane during their free time. Finally, a couple weeks ago they achieved absolute success as their airplane took off and flew steadily around the pole at about one to two feet of altitude–the whole academy cheered as they did this, as we all knew how hard they had worked. Here are photos:


Another set of students have worked for weeks on an originally designed trebuchet. They worked on this as their project during one day per week when I allow students a creative period in the makerspace to create or make whatever they wish within some broad guidelines. The students designed and built a trebuchet, but then repeatedly failed to launch a softball successfully. They kept persisting, however, and finally achieved success right before the end of school, launching a softball on a great arc over about one hundred feet of distance. Here are photos (note: one student, Alek, is missing from the photos since he was at the National Invention Convention that day):


Finally, the 8th graders have worked on the Codrone project where the coding of a small model aircraft (drone) took much patience and persistence, as described in an earlier post. For both the 7th and 8th grade classes in the academy, all the students have learned that big STEM projects require persistence to achieve results, but that the payoff in personal satisfaction makes it worth it, and they are connecting this persistence to other areas of their life.


Celebrating Success in STEM

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On June 14th, the 8th grade students and their families of the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering celebrated their accomplishments as the first class to complete two years in the academy. Taking time to celebrate any success is important, and this event was to mark two years’ worth of significant achievements in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). We opened the event, then ate dinner, then reviewed what the students had done over the past two years–here is a summary:

  • Students exceeded the requirements for 7th and 8th Grade Science, as described in the Newington Public Schools curriculum by integrating appropriate aerospace and engineering skills and concepts, as well as Next Generation Science Standards.
  • Students completed Honors Algebra and Honors Geometry (both are high school credits), and more impressively, the students far exceeded the target growth in mathematical reasoning—60% of students are expected to show growth and meet a target, but 91% of our students met or exceeded their target with many far exceeding the target by double digits–I attribute our integrated curriculum to this achievement, as students used and applied math throughout all the academy courses.
  • Additionally, over the past two years, students successfully completed:
    • 25 Labs
    • 25 Engineering design projects
    • 7 Field trips
    • 2 Major STEM competitions (CyberPatriot, Connecticut Invention Convention)
    • Many presentations and other projects
  • Students also heard from 21 professional and college student guest speakers.

After my presentation, students and parents came up and gave their testimony on how the academy had helped the students grow and develop into mature young men and women. These testimonies varied in reasons, but they all showed what a positive experience being in the academy had been. The students also surprised me with a gift, an Air Force team jersey with the number 17, symbolizing the class of 2017, and with all the students’ signatures on it. I could not have been more gratified. Finally, students had fun with a photo area with lots of props with which they could take humorous photos. Here are photos of the evening’s events:


Definition of terms:

Communist: A member of a Marxist political party, or any student who displeases Mr. Holmes for any reason.

Snowman: A human figure made of snow, or a student who is not a productive team member, but acts as if frozen in place.

Four of Spades: A playing card; also the repeated answer of an aircrew member suffering hypoxia in an altitude chamber, as seen on a training video.

Howdy: A standard greeting in Texas, and the appropriate way to warn fellow crew members on an airplane that flatulence has occurred.

Dynamic End of School Year Activities

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While many schools are winding down the school year with “fun” activities, videos, and other educationally light fare, the students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering are working on challenging and engaging activities right up to the end. The 7th graders, having just completed a lab comparing two types of model rockets, are starting an engineering project where each crew is designing their own original model rocket, then building and launching it as a test of the design. Students are ensuring the rocket is stable and are analyzing what forces will act on it. Here are some of the students launching their rockets during the lab while following all safety procedures laid out by the National Association of Rocketry:


The 8th graders are completing a coding and engineering project where they built and coded small drones, then flew them. These are Codrones made my Robolink, and the students had to learn everything to do this project through online tutorials. The Codrone uses an Arduino platform, and Robolink provides modified C++ code that the students can use, then tailor to make the drone do what they want. Essentially, this is a robotics activity. This was a challenging project, involving coding and flying. Here are some photos of the students working with Codrones:


Another task by one crew is to follow up on our Sundial Project and demonstrate the winning design to the Superintendent so that he can approve it to be built outside our school. To prepare this demonstration, the students made a full-size prototype with floor tiles, then laid them out and tested the sundial’s accuracy – it was spot on, as the last photo shows where Sydney is the gnomon and Richard is pointing to the current time, 3:45PM, which is right where Sydney’s shadow falls:


Finally, the 8th graders just finished the earth science unit on astronomy, so we are looking at life skills using Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Dr. Stephen Covey. The students are studying what Covey said, then planning how to apply them in their lives now and in the near future in high school.  We are wrapping up an outstanding year, and giving the students these challenging activities makes for a good closure.

Four Academy Students Selected for National Invention Convention

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Four students from the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering will be going to the National Invention Convention/Entrepreneurship Expo (NICEE) in Alexandria, Virginia later this week. These students have won at each level of Invention Convention and earned a spot at the national competition. First they competed and won in our local Newington Invention Convention on March 16th, then they competed and won at the Central Regional Invention Convention on April 8th, then they competed and won at the Connecticut Invention Convention on April 29th. Statistically, the academy would have been lucky to have one student make the national competition, so to have four going is extraordinary. Over 17,000 students from Connecticut competed in Invention Convention this year, and about 100 of those will go to NICEE, or about 0.6%. We had all fifty academy students compete in our local Newington Invention Convention, and we have four students going to NICEE, or 8% of our original competitors – this means we had over ten times as many students make the nationals as the average school.

Here are our national competitors and the awards they got at the state-level Connecticut Invention Convention on April 29th:

7th grade Academy winners:
Jasmine Barber – Sno Away (rolling snow shovel that avoids back strain) – Recognized Inventor Award and Connecticut Science and Engineering Fair Award.

Shiven Patel – Stop, Drop, and Spot (beacon to help find fire extinguisher in smokey room) – Recognized Inventor Award and Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering Award.


8th grade Academy winners:
Alek Jorge – Smart Helm (fireman’s helmet with sensors and transmitter to alert incident commander if fireman is hurt or down) – Recognized Inventor Award, Connecticut Fire Marshals Fire Safety Award, and Angel Investors Forum/Connecticut Venture Group Young Entrepreneur Award (this award connects Alek with potential investors in his invention).

Olivia Mullings – Temp Safe (alarm system if baby or pet is left in hot car) – Frank J. Link Family Award for Innovation in Technology Award, Boehringer Ingelheim Cares Foundation Life Sciences Award, United Technologies Corporation Moving the World Forward Award, and the McCormick, Paulding, and Huber Patent Award (this award was given last and highlighted as the top award which provides about $10,000 in legal services for a patent search and application).

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Ms. Garavel and I wish these students the best of luck at NICEE later this week!

The Ultimate Authentic Assessment: Air Navigation in Action

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The 8th graders in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering are learning about air navigation as part of their aerospace elective, Principles of Aerospace Science II. Air navigation is a complex subject, so we started with the simplest form of navigation, pilotage, or navigating by landmarks and reading a chart. We then learned deductive (“dead”) reckoning, or plotting a course, figuring the distance and speed, then computing the time to travel each leg. We learned how latitude and longitude are measured, and how to find them using celestial references and time. Then we practiced fixing our position with very high frequency omnidirectional range (VOR) radio navigation aids and using celestial references. At each stage, the students started with a lecture or short exercise, then they flew whatever we were studying on the flight simulator. As we studied these topics, we also looked at historic events in navigation, such as how celestial navigation developed, how longitude was finally found using accurate clocks, and how Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic using only dead reckoning and pilotage. We also discussed modern navigation systems, primarily the flight management system (FMS) and GPS navigation. However, since the modern systems have essentially automated navigation, we practiced the old methods to understand the basics of air navigation. The entire unit blended well with our science unit on astronomy and our geometry unit on circles.

As a final assessment, rather than give the students a traditional test, I gave them a task to fly a 100-mile route that included three turn points of 45 degrees or more heading change. They had to create a flight plan, plot the entire route on an air chart, then fly the route in real time using pilotage and dead reckoning throughout the flight. They were also required to fix their position at each turn point using two VOR radials. The students flew in pairs (and one group of three), alternating who flew and who navigated. This task was what educators call an authentic assessment, as it required students to complete a real-world, or authentic, task. Our STEMPilot Edustation flight simulators were ideal for this unit, as the students got to fly what they were learning both during lessons and for the authentic assessment.

Here are photos of the students flying their assessment, and some quotes from students on the end of unit reflection:


To start off, this unit in particular was my favorite by far this whole year. It combined history and flying as well as math into this unit with the history of navigation as well as the flight planning and that’s what I liked about the project. Not to mention that we got to spend 2 class periods flying on the simulators and flying our planned routes. That experience is something that I had not experienced before with the other missions and assignments that we did on the simulators. Touching up on the history portion, I enjoyed learning about the hardships that people in the passed faced when trying to find longitude and latitude to navigate around the world. I thought that the way this unit was walked though, was excellent because it was easy to digest as a student, but also brought some challenges to test your knowledge on what you learned and prove what you learned. I would not change a thing about how this unit was taught and I’m glad that we ended our class’ experience with the principles of aerospace science class with such a great unit. Overall, this was a great unit.

This unit was one of the more favored among the students of the class from what I have heard, and I personally agree because of how interactive and intuitive the assignments were, how history developed technologies we were able to use to navigate, and how the assessment of what we learned was set up and done to be more interactive and timely than a written quiz. This unit was taught very well, starting with the basics of navigation (different forms, ig.) and then going to the history of those basics and the advances of them, along the way adding them to a flight plan like a real pilot would do. The way that we proved our knowledge about this unit was honestly fun and also took some skill that I never thought I’d need as a student or in a career, but really it may come in handy in the future if I look forward to flying for a career or even getting a license. This was a perfect application for aerospace science, and I do not believe a thing should be changed about the unit.

To begin I felt that this Principles of Aerospace Science II unit was my favorite. In the beginning I didn’t think that I would like it that much. But that changed quickly. I really liked how we went on the simulators almost every single day. Also I like how we didn’t do the same thing everyday. Some days were lectures, some were simulators, some were flight planning, also some days we used computer websites, and lastly other days we watched videos. My favorite assignment from this unit was by far the final one. In this we planned a 100 nautical mile route. Then from their we found VOR’s, latitude, longitude, time, distance, heading, and other stuff like that. Then when we flew it using VOR and Dead Reckoning it was really fun and I learned a lot from it. Something that made this class unique from others was that it also covered a history perspective of it. That was very interesting learning about Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic. Overall this was my favorite unit by far and there isn’t much to improve it.

Overall, I found this unit fun and interesting, mostly because of what we learned. In this unit, we learned about different types of navigation, including dead reckoning and NAVAIDS, as well as GPS and FMS. After learning about these ways of air navigation, went through a 100 nautical mile trip around New York State, where we had to plan it with the headings and lengths of the legs, then fly it on the flight simulators accordingly. I found this the most interesting (along with probably everyone else in the class) because we HAD to apply everything we learned throughout the unit to navigate around New York. This was one of the most fun units in the academy because we had to practice staying on route and keeping correct heading and altitudes in most weather conditions.

Integrated STEM Project: Designing Sundials

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The 8th grade students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering have just completed an integrated STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) project where each crew (student groups of four to five students) designed a sundial, built a model of it, tested it, and presented it to Mr. Dias, our current Assistant Principal and next year’s Principal at John Wallace Middle School. The requirement given to the students was to design a sundial with an aerospace theme that could be built on the school grounds outside the academy. Mr. Dias saw all the designs presented, then he chose what he believed was the best design that would complement our school. The winning design, by Crew 4, uses a person as the gnomon (the part of the sundial that casts the shadow) and directs the person to stand on different places on the sundial, depending on the time of year, in order to accurately depict the time year-round.

So what makes this an “integrated project?” Integration means applying what is learned in one class to a problem in another class, or connecting concepts across two or more classes. We do this type of learning every day in the academy, and this project was especially integrated. The 8th graders have learned about the Solar System and how the Sun, Moon and planets move across the sky from an Earth observer’s point of view–they applied this knowledge to the sundial since the Sun changes its position in the sky not only hour to hour, but also day to day. The students used astronomy software to plot the Sun’s position every hour from 6:00AM to 6:00PM on both the summer and winter solstices and on the spring and fall equinoxes. They used this information to design the hour lines on their sundials. Drawing these lines required knowledge of circles, which is the unit in geometry we are studying–so students applied their knowledge of central angles and angular motion to design the sundial’s face with its hour lines. Half of the students are also studying air navigation, including latitude and longitude, so they applied that knowledge to the problem of designing the gnomon whose angle depends on latitude. Finally, the students applied what they have learned the past two years in the academy about the engineering design process and presentation skills. All of these connections made this a highly integrated project.

Here are photos of each crew with models of their sundials:

Crew 1’s design would be on a pillar and is based on the academy logo with the gear as the sundial’s base and the red arrow as  the gnomon.
Crew 2’s design would be on a pillar and has an aerospace theme with celestial objects marking each hour.
Crew 3’s design uses the current academy sign, shaped like an aircraft tail, as the gnomon, then rocks in the ground would mark the hour lines.
WINNING DESIGN – Crew 4’s design would be laid out in the ground with pavers and requires a person to stand as gnomon on the appropriate month to cast a shadow and give the time.
Crew 5’s design is a large cement slab sundial in the ground with a gnomon shaped like an aircraft wing.
Crew 6’s design would be on a pillar and has interchangeable disks for each season  so that the sundial is accurate year round.