More on a Spiral Approach to STEM Learning

Posted on

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 STEM Careers

Posted on

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 Persistence is Key to STEM Learning

Posted on

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.


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

Posted on Updated on

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:

img_3529 img_3529a img_3529b img_3529c img_3530 img_3552

Here are photos of the 6th grade orientation visits:

img_3566 img_3571 img_3572 img_3574 img_3575

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

img_3576 img_3577