Combining Inquiry and Engineering Design in STEM Lessons

Lab activity with air launched paper rockets

Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering are learning about rockets. Our current science unit is on earth science, focusing on the internal and external structural changes of the Earth. We just finished plate tectonics, earthquakes, and volcanoes, and we are starting to look at the rock cycle, weathering, and erosion. To connect these topics to an aerospace theme, I have shown how scientists use remote sensing to detect, measure, and analyze these changes on the Earth, and on other planets and moons. Aerospace remote sensing uses aircraft and satellites, but we also looked at maritime remote sensing using ships and submarines. Now we are looking at how satellites and other spacecraft get to space, primarily using rockets. I timed this unit to coincide with spring so that we can build and launch rockets outside. It also coincides with our algebra unit on quadratic functions that describe how rockets change position over time.

Teaching about rockets involves two parallel strands–teaching how actual rockets launched by NASA and other space agencies work, and model rocketry where students see how a rocket operates firsthand. The first step in model rocketry is to learn some basics about rocket flight and safety. Therefore, we just did an inquiry lab where students built simple paper rockets launched by air pressure. It was an inquiry activity, as I did not give the students any guidance except to determine a dependent variable they could measure to determine the rocket’s performance based on an independent variable they could change. The lab also involved engineering design practices, as the students had to decide what modifications they made to their rocket to test its performance, then build those modifications and test them during multiple launches. The lab was a lot of fun, and a perfect way to get outside on a nice spring Friday. The following photos show the students designing and building their rockets:



The rockets were launched using a L-shaped 1/2-inch PVC pipe that was duct taped to an empty 2-liter soda bottle. The paper rocket slipped over the end of the pipe, and stepping on the bottle provided a burst of air pressure for launch. The record distance was over 130 feet–not bad for a piece of paper! Here are the students launching and testing their rocket  performance:IMG_2474


Intern Kate Morehead volunteers to measure distances of rocket launches
Note the rocket flying through the air at the top of the photo – they flew high and far!


Making Connections: Comparing Undersea and Aerospace Remote Sensing to Learn About Earth Science

NOAA's Okeanos Explorer
NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer

The week before spring break at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering, I decided to focus our lessons on a topic outside of our academy theme of aerospace – instead, we focused on the ocean. We are in the middle of our third major unit of grade-level science, earth science, and the current topic is plate tectonics, earthquakes, and volcanoes. I had tied this topic to our aerospace theme by teaching the students about remote sensing from the air and from space, and we learned how various aircraft and satellites can be used to observe plate tectonics and provide warning of earthquakes and volcanoes. We also learned about NASA missions to Mars that have observed plate tectonics and that plan to put a seismograph on the planet to detect earthquakes.

At the beginning of this unit, we had learned that much of plate tectonic theory had been developed after observations of the sea floor had shown major rifts and mountain chains. As I researched the topic, I realized the students would benefit from a short study of undersea plate tectonics and its effects. I found a treasure trove of material on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Ocean Explorer website. The way I connected this to what we had studied already was first to focus on undersea remote sensing using SONAR (sound navigation and ranging) and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), then to compare how they were used to the way the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum, drones, and satellites were used for aerospace remote sensing. Then I had the students pick undersea earth science topics that interested them, research the topics, then present their findings to the class. After we finished the unit, I asked the students to reflect on it and say how they liked studying the ocean and if it was helpful. Here are a few responses that are representative of the whole class and show they found it very helpful:

“I think that this past week learning about the ocean and remote sensing was good and reinforced my understanding of remote sensing. This helped me because everything tied together. The SONAR information was about remote sensing and that helped with the tectonic activity under the ocean. To conclude I thought that learning about the ocean was extremely helpful.”

“Overall, this week on learning about the ocean was really helpful and interesting to me. It helped me understand how the aerospace world and the ocean world relate when traveling and using remote sensing. It also made it clear to me how many of today’s technologies in different substances follow some of the same principles. To conclude I really enjoyed learning about the ocean this week because it helped me understand more about waves and different technologies.”

“I think that ocean week was a very good idea. It let me see that sound is useful for making discoveries, not just light. It also showed me that even though most people are interested in space and that sort of stuff, we really don’t know a lot about Earth. Overall this was a good project/week to do and it was good to take a break from space for a while since we have been taking about space for a couple of weeks now.”

“This helped me further understand how the Earth works with plate tectonics; it was also very interesting. What I want to do with this information is apply it to other planets or moons with tectonic activity like Mars or Europa. I also found that knowing how SONAR works could also be helpful in comparing other environments on other planets or moons.”

“This week on the ocean was a very helpful week for me. It helped me understand way more about the ocean. I was also able to make many connections along the way to the aerospace world. At first when you said we were going to be doing an ocean study, I didn’t think it would be useful, but after awhile when we were covering it, I realized how helpful it was to me.”

“I liked this week on marine science. We learned about how scientists use ROVs [remotely operated vehicles] to study areas thought to be an area of anomaly. These areas consisted of hydrothermal vents which and hotspots. These special occurrences happen all over the world, and we use different ROVs to locate and find out what they are doing. The Okeanos Explorer has two special ROVs to send out for different things. They have special instruments on them to find out if that area is an anomaly like a thermometer to see how hot an area is and a barometer to study depth and pressure. SONAR is used to show images of areas underwater with depth and location of the area. I learned a lot about ROVs and how they work and how they are used during this week. Thank you for the week on marine science.”

“Learning about the ocean was very useful because we have focused on exploration in the air and in space, but now we compared and contrasted ocean exploration with what we already knew. For example in the ocean you use sonar instead of radar to map out your location. I though it was all very interesting.”

“Studying the ocean helped us understand what we can do without involving the EM Spectrum. We are no longer confined to just using the EM spectrum because we learned that when it isn’t possible to be used, like in the ocean, we can used SONAR which uses sound. Studying how SONAR is used showed me how little the ocean is explored, much less the whole Earth, and it would be a good career field to look into. It also shows that when something doesn’t work, there is always something else just waiting to be discovered or used, and just because air, space, and the ocean are so different, it doesn’t mean you have to look in a completely different direction. Both use the basic concept of waves, which proves that what you learn in one area can be used in another area. I believe that we should get out there, as a nation and a world, and look at what the ocean and other unexplored things have in store for us.”

Seismograph Challenge: Incorporating Engineering Design into Science

At the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering, our 7th grade students are studying earth science now, with a focus on plate tectonics, earthquakes, and volcanoes. To connect this topic to our aerospace theme, we are looking at how scientists use remote sensing with aircraft, spacecraft, or remote ground sensors to study earth science. Since another theme of our academy is engineering, I also try to have some sort of engineering design challenge with every unit. This is right in line with the new science standards:

“The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) represent a commitment to integrate engineering design into the structure of science education by raising engineering design to the same level as scientific inquiry…students are expected to be able to define problems—situations that people wish to change—by specifying criteria and constraints for acceptable solutions; generating and evaluating multiple solutions; building and testing prototypes; and optimizing a solution.” (NGSS Release, April 2013)

Therefore, this past week, I gave students the challenge to design and build a seismograph, the device used to detect and measure an earthquake. Students learned how seismographs were first developed, how they have been used, and some simple ways to make one. They took these ideas and developed their own designs, then they built prototypes, then we tested them in our Makerspace by using a workbench as our “Earthquake Test Center.” It was a fun project, and all of the seismographs registered “earthquakes,” both large and small – we pounded on the workbench to simulate a large earthquake, and we wound up and released a little hopping bunny toy to simulate a small one. Here are photos of each crew (student group) and their design:


Here are photos of students testing their seismographs before the big test:


Integrating STEM Lessons

In writing and implementing the curriculum for the new Academy of Aerospace and Engineering at John Wallace Middle School, my basic approach has been to integrate subjects using science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts as a central theme for all the courses. Integration in a general sense means reiterating the theme or concept in each class. In a more specific sense, it means taking a concept learned in one class and applying it in a different lesson in another class. The fundamental purpose is to tie classes together in the minds of students so that they connect the learning in each class to the central concept or theme. Students do not learn as well when classes are discrete and unrelated. Integration not only helps students make connections, but it also provides a way to reiterate a concept without boring the students by simply repeating it.

Students Learn Wave Motion in Inquiry Lab with Slinkys

One example example of integrating lessons around a concept involves our current science unit and the associated aerospace theme. The science unit concerns the Earth’s composition and how the surface changes. I connected this topic to the aerospace concept of remote sensing. We will study the Earth by seeing how we could observe it from the air or space. However, students would not understand remote sensing if I just launched into it, so I have spent a couple weeks having them learn about the electromagnetic spectrum and wave motion. First we reviewed what the electromagnetic spectrum was. Then each student group, or crew, was assigned a part of the spectrum to research and explain to the class and to give examples of using it for remote sensing. Then we looked at how the atmosphere and water can absorb or reflect various parts of the spectrum, and we connected this idea to how we could use the various parts of the spectrum for remote sensing. We also flew a flight simulator mission and looked at all of the aircraft devices that relied on the electromagnetic spectrum and that provided remote sensing. Finally we studied the wave motion of electromagnetic radiation so that the terms of “wavelength” and “frequency” meant something. We used Slinkys to do an inquiry lab, and the students could observe and measure or calculate wave motion firsthand. The calculations used the same process we learned in algebra class, solving literal, linear equations. The culminating activity for the remote sensing theme will be a series of design challenges to develop aircraft or spacecraft remote sensing platforms for specific missions that I will give to each crew. The students will use their STEM skills to accomplish the challenge, and they will relate all of these to the central theme of remote sensing.

Students in the “Shark Tank” Present Food Supply Plan for Mission to Mars

Another example of an integrated set of lessons involved a short science unit on food preservation. I covered this unit right after we finished the human body systems, including the digestive system. How does food preservation relate to aerospace, our academy’s theme? My solution was to relate food preservation to a current problem that NASA is tackling: how to plan the food supply for a mission to Mars. The mission to Mars has been a recurring theme in all of our classes. For example, during the human body systems unit, we looked at the physiological challenges of long term space travel. Now we could add to this previous study by focusing on the food supply challenge. First I had the students study and report on various food preservation technologies. Then we researched what NASA has done so far to develop food supplies for the International Space Station. Finally I gave the students a design challenge – each student crew had to develop a food supply for four astronauts on a five-year mission to Mars and back. They had to count the calories and report on the general plan for the astronauts’ diet and show how this diet would provide not only the needed calories, but also the required nutrients. To add some fun, I made each student crew present their design in a “Shark Tank” environment where our principal, Mr. Dave Milardo, and our intern, Kate Morehead, judged the presentations. The crews did an outstanding job identifying the challenges and providing realistic solutions. All in all, it was superb way for students to learn about food preservation in a way they won’t forget, as it relates to the exciting theme of a mission to Mars.