Using the Engineering Design Process to Teach Service Learning

In honor of the current Winter Olympics, the 8th grade students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering decided to organize their own Academy Olympic games for the academy 7th graders to play. Our students stay one hour longer in school every day, and this extra period is the perfect time for hands on projects, STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) competitions, flying the flight simulator, and going outside to fly model aircraft or model rockets. Winter can be challenging, as we are generally stuck indoors. Therefore, the Academy Olympics gave the students a great day of fun learning right before we went on February break. For the 8th graders, this became a service project, as they were doing the work to provide a fun learning activity for the 7th graders. We have done other service projects, or service learning, in the academy in the past, and it can be challenging getting 25 or more middle schoolers to organize a project. As I started working with the 8th graders on this service project, it occurred to me that the NASA engineering design process we use for engineering design projects was the perfect framework to guide us in conducting this project.

The way we used the engineering design process for this service project worked as follows–the traditional project planning words are in bold, while the engineering design process steps are in underlined italics:

  • The 8th graders first planned the olympic events by doing some research, then brainstorming various events.
  • Next they organized the events by having each crew (group of about four students) design its event in detail. Each crew also presented its design to the other crews and everyone discussed ideas to improve each event.
  • The 8th graders then prepared their events by building or modeling what was needed to play or compete in the event, along with score sheets and other materials.
  • The day before the Academy Olympics, the 8th graders rehearsed their events by having one crew play (test) the other’s event, then switching, and having each crew provide feedback to the other so that they could refine it.
  • Finally, on the day of the Academy Olympics, each crew conducted its event by presenting it to the 7th graders.

The events were:

  1. A knowledge game like Jeopardy.
  2. A team game based on “escape the room” where students had to answer a series of riddles.
  3. A quick design challenge.
  4. A physical fitness challenge (pushups or situps, then planks).
  5. A team game where one person guides another blind-folded person through a “mine field.”
  6. A flying challenge on the flight simulator.

Each 7th grader could sign up for three of these events, and each event took ten minutes. Scores were accumulated by crew, and Crew 6 was the final winner of the Academy Olympic games. To assess the 8th graders in this project, I modified our Engineering Design Process (EDP) Rubric and made it a Service Project EDP Rubric.

Here are photos of the 7th graders competing as the 8th graders run the events–notice that there are no adults directing anything–the students were 100% in control, as Ms. Garavel and I just monitored for safety and timing:


Afterwards, the 7th graders gave the 8th graders feedback–they enjoyed the games very much, and they had some constructive suggestions. The plan now is for the 7th graders to  organize and conduct a similar event in the spring for the 8th graders to compete in, then possibly to extend it to a local elementary school. Let the games begin!

Teaching the F-Word in STEM: Failure

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:


Learning by Doing: Hands On & Minds On

At the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering, students learn STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills in a variety of ways. In most lessons, the students are learning by doing what they are studying. In learning the engineering design process (EDP), Mrs. Garavel’s new 7th graders have first studied a process promoted by NASA for middle and high school students. Then they had a design challenge to make a miniature “cable car” that would slide down a fishline. Each crew (group of 4 to 5 students) followed the EDP in a step-by-step way to brainstorm, design, build, test and refine their cable car. In doing so, they learned the EDP in a way that was both fun and helpful in making the theory become clear in their minds. Similarly, the 7th graders, having just completed and presented research reports on various aircraft, flew the flight simulators to see how aircraft actually flew.

Meanwhile, the 8th graders got an engineering challenge to design and build the fastest possible model rocket powered by an Estes A8-3 engine. As second-year academy students, they know the EDP very well, but this project challenges them to take it to the next level. They have spent the first week just researching, brainstorming, and designing. I augmented their research by giving lecture/discussions on NASA hypersonics research and North Korea’s Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) program, both of which relate to rockets. Next week they will start building, and launches are planned the week after. Learning by doing–it’s not just hands on, but it is also minds on, engaging students and challenging them to think critically and solve problems while working in teams.

Here are photos of the 7th graders in action:


Here are photos of the 8th graders in action:


Host an Invention Convention & Promote STEM

On March 16, 2017, the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering hosted the Newington Invention Convention for all 50 academy students, plus six other students from the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) Clubs at both John Wallace Middle School and Martin Kellogg Middle School in Newington. This competition was the local event leading up to the state-level Connecticut Invention Convention, a nationally recognized STEM competition that challenges elementary and middle school students to design, build, and present an original invention. Students began working after winter break on their inventions, following an engineering design process to research, brainstorm, design, build and test inventions that solved problems in their lives. The students also had to build a presentation board and practice explaining their invention. At the competition, each student inventor was interviewed by a pair of judges who scored each invention using a rubric developed by Connecticut Invention Convention. In the end, the judges picked the top 15% (9 total students) who now get to compete at the Central Regional Invention Convention on April 8, 2017 at Goodwin College in East Hartford, along with hundreds of other local winners from our part of the state. The winners from the regional competitions will get to compete at the state-level event on April 29, 2017 at UCONN’s Gampel Pavilion. The winners of the Newington Invention Convention and the names of their inventions were as follows:

6th grade / STEM Club
Zachary White – “Insta Crack Cam”

7th grade/Academy
Jasmine Barber – “Sno-Away”
Shiven Patel – “Stop, Drop, and Spot”
Vidhisha Thakkar – “Baby Safe”
Emmanuel Thomas – “Charger Clip”

8th grade/Academy
Brandon Fiore – “Thermo Plate”
Tyler Frohock – “White Out Vest”
Alek Jorge – “Smart Helm”
Olivia Mullings – “Temp Safe”

Getting judges for a competition like this one can be difficult, as it is recommended not to use teachers or parents so that there is no perception of any favoritism toward one student or another. Fortunately for us, we have built a great partnership with two outstanding aerospace firms in our community, GKN Aerospace and PCX Aerostructures, both of whom provided judges for the Newington Invention Convention. GKN judges were Bruce Fiedorowicz, Tiedah Evans, Reggie Gay, Ewelina Maselek, and Jon Ford. PCX judges were Chris Aldrich, Gerry Zimmerman, Louisa Triggs, and Nate Knowles. They worked in pairs, and each pair judged around 15 student inventors in about one hour’s time. Finally, Bruce Fiedorowicz and Chris Aldrich helped pass out awards and said a few words at our closing ceremony. We congratulate all the inventors at this event!


Photos of 8th grade inventors from the Academy:

Photos of 7th grade inventors from the Academy:

Photos of STEM Club inventors:

Photos of the competition and closing ceremony:

NOTE: Most photos were taken by Kate Norton of Newington Public Schools (thank you!).

Using Games to Learn STEM

Recently, the 7th graders at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering got an assignment to design a board game or computer game related to the aerospace and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) topics they had learned. Ms. Garavel gave them a class period to plan out their games, then the students did most of the work at home. The 25 students ended up producing about 12 different games, all of which were creative designs. Following a standard engineering design process, the students then needed to test their games–so they invited the 8th graders to play them. We set up six stations for our six 8th grade crews, and each crew spent about 10 minutes playing one or two games and talking with the creators. After each round, the 8th graders wrote constructive comments about each game. The 7th graders are using these comments as feedback to refine their game designs. It was a great project, and it gave the two classes a chance to bond and have fun learning together. Here are photos of the students playing the games, and some of the 8th graders’ feedback:


“I really liked the games that the seventh graders made, they were very fun and enjoyable to play. It helped me brush up on some of the things that we did last year. My two favorites were the one that was like monopoly and the one that was like sorry. I would recommend improving the wording of the questions but overall it was great. This was a very good assignment.”

“Overall I thought everyone in 7th grade put so much effort into these projects and they were great! I would also like to do something similar to this as I believe that it will help my understanding of the topic and I will receive more lessons than I would in class. But overall I really think it’s a great idea.”

“Overall, after playing all of the games that the 7th graders made I thought that all of them were great. I loved that all of them were both fun and were informational at the same time. My favorite was the two jeopardy games and also the one crew 3 did with a “Head to Head” question game. I liked how they were also competitive and creative. It wasn’t like you just sat there and answered questions. There was always a twist to it. I thought it was also good to review information from last year…I think we could make projects about all of the topics we have covered so far in all of aerospace. I think each crew could pick a different topic, so that we get a review out of it as well.”

“Overall, the games were fun, simple, and educational. A few did not meet the same standards as the majority, but they were good for the amount of time allowed. All of the games I played were fun. They kept me intrigued and anticipating the winner. Some were simple and some were more complex. Even the “harder” games weren’t terrible. None were so complicated that I simply didn’t get them. Finally, from an educational standpoint, all were different levels of complexity. A handful of games required lot’s of background knowledge but some could be done by a beginner with limited prior knowledge…Overall, for the time given, I think they did an awesome job and I would enjoy doing a project like this sometime.”

“I really liked the games the 7th grader it was fun to play and it wasn’t really wasn’t that hard to play instead it was a fun way to relearn some on the facts. The 7th graders put a lot of effort into it one of the games I like most was jeopardy and the bord games where you had to move the figures. it was all fun overall the 7th grader did a great job and it would be fun to do this too.”

“To begin, I would like to say that all the games were really fun and informational. In addition, I thought the the games had really good and strong information. They also, had information that was not easy, but correct which kept the game intrigue. Also, if i was a person who knew nothing about flight I think that I would be able to understand the information for the most part because some of the information was a little complex, but most made sense and was reasonable. To continue, I think that the 7th, graders really did a great job on these and they made learning about flight really fun. Overall, I think this was a great assignment because you get to have fun while learning.”

Experiential Learning with Gliders

Experiential learning continues this month as the 7th graders in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering completed an engineering design project with gliders. Students followed the engineering design process (EDP) to research, brainstorm, design, build and test a glider made from various materials in our makerspace. Working with their crew members students followed the EDP steps to bring their glider to life. All research and brainstorming ideas are documented in the engineering notebook, along with a detailed sketch of the final design with dimensions. The students also document the testing phase and any resulting refinements to their design. An exciting end to their four days of designing, building, and testing was the “Fly Off” challenge. Each crew was given two attempts to fly their glider to determine which one could fly the farthest.

During this process students were encouraged to not only document these steps in writing, but also to assign one crew member as the photographer to capture the highlights. The following week students worked with Mr. Vallera, Technology Integration Teacher, to learn the basics of WeVideo. While learning the tools of this program they were challenged to incorporate their learning into a two-minute video about their glider project. They met this challenge and produced relevant, creative and informative videos capturing their collaborative efforts and hard work. They shared links of their individual videos and were assigned to watch at least three of those done by other students and to give feedback to the producers. Many of the students watched all of them because the videos were each so unique and showcased each person’s exceptional creative style. Some of the students’ comments are listed below as well as links to a few of the videos.

“Right off the bat, it was great how you not only said your crew name, but you gave us the name of your glider. Your text was great, you didn’t just say you were sanding or cutting, you told us exactly what you were doing. I also liked that you told us where you messed up, and what you did to fix the error. Your pictures were in an order that made sense. There were some spelling mistakes, but no big deal. It was great how you included a few different views of the final glider.”

“ I really liked how you included all of the parts of the EDP process. It made it really good, because you then related it with pictures. One thing I would have done was added more pictures to show how you were using the EDP process in your building of the glider.”

“It was great how you had the intro kinda of zoom out! I loved how you put steps for all the different parts of your video. Also, like what M mentioned, your captions for each slide helped me better understand what was happening. I thought your pictures were the perfect length of time! It was great how you included parts such as research and brainstorming in as steps, I just included the actual glider parts, and I thought it added a nice touch. It was nice that you added multiple examples of the notebook entries from people in your crew. Your music was a good choice because it made it better than just being silent, but it wasn’t distracting. I liked how you put indoor/outdoor testing as separate things, and the videos from that added a good thing. It was awesome how you put the distance it went after each test too.”

“I really like how you had multiple pictures for every part and had a brief explanation of what was happening. It was cool to see how every part was being made. It was a good idea to start with a picture of your crew and then have every part that went in making your plane. It was also awesome how you ended with videos of your plane fly and images of your final product. I especially like the videos from the final fly off, good job!”

Crew 1

Crew 2

Crew 3

Crew 4

Crew 5

Crew 6

Here are samples of a reflection essay about the engineering design process. Each student completed this after their glider was finished.

Glider project (what I learned)

            While building my crews glider, I learned a lot about gliders and the way they worked. I also learned some things about EDP and ways I can properly execute it. One of the things I learned about gliders was the types of gliders that there are. Believe it or not, a paper airplane is a type of glider, which i did not know before. There is also balsa wood and Styrofoam gliders which are better for models and student labs. Some of the more complex gliders are hang gliders and piloted gliders. Hang gliders look kind of like kites except there is a human controlling it. A piloted glider has all of the standard flight controls and parts of a plane, except for the engines.  A great example of a piloted glider would be the space shuttles in the space shuttle program. Their rockets come off in one of the stages of takeoff so they have to come back down to earth as a glider.

Another thing I learned about gliders was how they are made and used. They do not have engines and their fuselages made to be as aerodynamic as possible. This is why most gliders have reclined seats which allow the person in the glider (unless it is a model) to lean back and the fuselage will go over them. So basically, aerodynamics is a huge part of a glider since it can’t gain anymore thrust after take-off.

I also learned about the two main types of takeoff for larger gliders. For both of them, the glider is attached to something, but for one it is another plane and for the other it is something on the ground. When a glider is launched using a plane, the plane tows the glider behind it until the glider is at the desired altitude and then lets go of the glider. They both then turn in opposite directions so they don’t hit each other. For the other one, the glider is towed along the ground at a rather fast speed which gives it lift. The glider will get into the air and rise until it is at the desired altitude. Then the cable will let go and the glider will glide.

            During the actual creation of the glider, I learned how important EDP is. When you have a plan, it is going to be changed a lot. The original plan is almost never what you actually end up with so you have to keep a running record of you past designs and what worked and what didn’t. You should also keep a log of any changes you made so if the change doesn’t work, maybe you can find a way to put it back the way it was before. The last important thing I learned about EDP is how important it is to share any possible solutions you may come up with. If you don’t share your ideas, they will not be implemented and who knows, your idea might actually make the glider or whatever you are working on work.

What I learned about E.D.P and Gliders

       While doing the glider project we went through all the steps of the engineering design process, but for this project I feel we went more in depth than we did for the previous E.D.P project. We better followed the process and better followed the steps, including more research.

                        While doing the assignment we began with two days devoted to research and brainstorming, which I feel really helped us. In the Rube Goldberg project we kind of rushed the first step of the process trying to finish the research and brainstorming so we could build.  I learned how much the research can truly help you. A lot of our aircraft was inspired by our research. For example the weight added to the nose, the size of the wing vs. the size of our fuselage, and the way the things were placed. The brainstorm part was also very important because it gave us a plan to follow that we actually stuck with.

                        We also focused more on the testing part of E.D.P. We not only learned about what flight testing is, but we talked about how to test and even came up with a test on our own.  Again referring to our Rube Goldberg, we didn’t have a final test till about 10 minutes before presenting, and we didn’t even test for a certain thing, as scientific test usually do.

We learned a lot about gliders from this, as well. Not only did we learn about how they are designed, but we learned about how they fly and how to make them fly further. First of all I learned that there are different types of gliders used for different things, and for each one the design is very different.

One very cool fact in my opinion is how gliders take off they are usually towed behind another vehicle and then dropped into the air, and then it’s just a matter of getting enough lift to keep flying and not just drop down.

We learned how for model glider as we are making, it is best for the wing to be a length of 50-60- cm and the length of the fuselage should be 70% of that food a better lift to drag ratio. We also read on the slides we were shown in class that having a rounded nose with weight at the end minimized drag.

So by doing this not only fun but informative project, we further learned the process of E.D.P, more closely following its steps but we also learned about gliders and how they work. It was cool to compare the flight and design of an airplane to a glider which doesn’t have an engine so it doesn’t have lift.

All in all this is a very cool project that I know my group and I enjoyed doing. It taught us a lot more about E.D.P and definitely helped us better understand gliders.

Post by Ms. Garavel.

Using a Makerspace Effectively

Many schools are installing makerspaces as part of the trend to include engineering design in the curriculum. The Academy of Aerospace and Engineering has a makerspace, and it an integrated part of the instruction. What is a makerspace? Here is one definition:

“Makerspaces provide hands-on, creative ways to encourage students to design, experiment, build and invent as they deeply engage in science, engineering and tinkering.” Jennifer Cooper, Designing a School Makerspace (Edutopia)

A makerspace is not the old wood shop or other traditional shop class. I love wood shops, so this is not to disparage them. However, the traditional shop classes were about learning skills with tools, usually with little creativity allowed. The student learned to use each tool safely and proficiently, then made some sort of project dictated by the teacher. The original purpose of shop classes was to prepare students for entry level manufacturing jobs that generally required rudimentary skills. As low skills jobs have disappeared, replaced by a much smaller number of precision manufacturing jobs requiring a much higher level of skills, the traditional shop classes have become somewhat irrelevant. In Connecticut, for example, there are many aerospace manufacturers, but even the entry level jobs require students proficient in basic math and problem solving skills. The majority of jobs require some training on computer numerical control (CNC) machines, and most companies prefer workers who can program and customize these machines, not just operate them. Therefore, a better way for schools to provide students with relevant learning experiences that could lead to employment is to promote engineering design that includes some hands on experience with tools and materials–that’s where a makerspace comes in.

So we have a makerspace and use it every week–but what do the students do in it, and how will it help them later in life? Fundamentally, we use the makerspace as an engineering laboratory–we have taught the students an engineering design process provided by NASA, then we give the students a problem which they must solve using this process. The process includes designing a solution, building a prototype, and testing and refining the prototype–the students need a place with tools and materials to do these steps of the process, so that is where they need the makerspace. We have the appropriate tools and materials to build the various aerospace-related projects that fit in our curriculum. That is a key point–the makerspace should be tailored to what the students need to expand their learning in the planned curriculum. Because Connecticut is forecasting a huge shortage of engineers, especially in the aerospace sector, Newington Public Schools built our academy. To promote an understanding of aerospace and engineering, we tailored the makerspace for aerospace engineering projects. Other schools would have different requirements for a makerspace and should tailor theirs accordingly. The bottom line is to customize the makerspace to your students’ needs and your curriculum.

Here is a photo of our Aerospace Lab area with the makerspace on the right and a collaboration area and flight simulator training area on the left, and our “runway” down the middle:

Aerospace Lab – Academy of Aerospace and Engineering (photo by Eric Cohen)

Currently in the makerspace, the eighth graders are working on a project to design, build, and fly an electrically powered model aircraft that can lift the most weight. The main constraint is that the aircraft cannot exceed a 3-foot wingspan or nose-tail length. The students reviewed aerodynamics and used our wind tunnel to test various airfoils they built. Using this knowledge and other research, they brainstormed designs. They are now building their prototypes in the makerspace and plan to start flight testing next week using a tethered flight system. Stay tuned for photos.

The seventh graders did their first major engineering design project with Ms. Garavel last week and the week before as they designed, built, and tested Rube Goldberg machines to demonstrate their knowledge of simple machines. We do this project first, instead of an aerospace project, because it can easily be done with junk materials. In this way, as the students learn to use the tools and materials for the first time, mistakes and wastage don’t matter too much since they are not using the more expensive materials needed to make aircraft or rockets–plus it’s a fun project linked to the simple machines curriculum. Here are photos of the tests:


This week, the seventh graders did a project to design, build, and test a model glider that would glide the farthest, demonstrating knowledge of basic aerodynamics. Here are photos of each student crew with their glider–note the variety of designs, including a reverse delta wing and a biplane. Crew 3’s glider (third photo) went the farthest in the final test: