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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:

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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:

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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):

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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.

 

What is a STEM Academy? It’s an Integrated Approach to Learning–and Busy!

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The Academy of Aerospace and Engineering at John Wallace Middle School in Newington, Connecticut is a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) academy – but what does that mean? There are different ways that question can be answered, depending on how the academy is set up. For me, in setting up this academy, it means that students have an integrated learning experience throughout their classes in the academy so that regardless of the class title, e.g., “Geometry” or “8th Grade Science,” the students are using and referring to science, technology, engineering, and math in every class. More specifically, whatever we discuss in one class, we try to use as a reference in the other classes. Not everything carries over every day, but the main topics do. We also emphasize how these subjects integrate more broadly with society and periodically discuss the ramifications of various STEM initiatives on society. For example, the 8th graders are about to learn about genetics and heredity, and we had a preliminary discussion about some ethical considerations of genetic engineering.

Integration of the various subjects also means we have a lot going on in our classes, and every day is different. In the last week of classes before winter break, we were especially busy. The 7th graders were finishing up an engineering project to design and test a propeller on a rubber band powered model airplane. The 8th graders all worked on improving the designs of their electrically powered model airplanes, a project developed by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). This project has been very challenging. When the first crews (groups of 4 students) designed and tested their airplanes, they didn’t even move. Now most crews have airplanes that are on the verge of taking off as they speed along the ground. Both projects have required students to use math and science as the basis of their designs, and good engineering practices to build and refine their designs. On top of all this, we hosted all of the 6th grade science classes in our school in a series of orientation visits, as these students will have the opportunity to apply to the academy in a couple months. On these visits, the 7th and 8th grade academy students gave a complete tour of the academy facility, then the 7th graders showed the 6th graders how to fly our STEMPilot flight simulators. We also did service projects in spirit with the holidays. The 8th graders collected items for the John Wallace Middle School Wish Club, and the 7th graders did a variety of collections and fundraisers for the Wish Club. It was a very busy week exemplifying an integrated approach to STEM.

Here are photos of the 8th grade crews with their electrically powered model airplanes:

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Here are photos of the 6th grade orientation visits:

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Here are some photos of the 7th graders working on their service projects:

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