estes model rocket

Learning by Doing: Hands On & Minds On

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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:



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.


Learning the Engineering Design Process with Model Rockets

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Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering are in the final weeks of school, so we are doing our last engineering design challenge. Each challenge follows the NASA Engineering Design Process. Students first get a problem to solve, then they do research to see what has been done before and what might apply to their problem. They brainstorm ideas to develop a solution, then they finally pick the best design that meets the criteria of the problem. Finally, they build and test a prototype to develop a final solution. They document all these steps and their daily activities in an engineering notebook. Our current aerospace theme is about rockets, so the last design challenge is to improve a model rocket design. A couple weeks ago, the students got two different model rocket kits, an Estes and Viking, and they conducted a lab to test their respective performances. See my last post for details on this lab. The engineering design challenge I presented to them was to develop an improved version of either of these rockets – namely, they had to develop a model rocket that would fly as high as possible, and higher than the commercially available rockets.

To meet the challenge, student crews (groups of 4 or 5 students) first did research and brainstormed ideas. We also reviewed the basic physics of rocket flight and the forces involved. Students understood that for the rocket to fly higher, it needed to have the least amount of weight and drag. Each student crew then worked on their initial designs. When they presented these designs to me, before anything was built, I was not impressed. The designs had minimally changed the commercial rockets, making very small changes to the original designs. I told the students to go back to the drawing board and be more bold and innovative. They took this challenge and developed much better designs that changed almost every aspect of the commercial rockets. The redesigned new fins using new materials, they used computer aided design (CAD) to 3D print new nose cones, they redesigned the recovery systems, and they changed the body tubes. We are finishing these new rockets by early next week and plan to launch and test them on Thursday, May 26th, weather permitting.

Here are photos of the students developing their rocket designs and constructing various components:

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