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:


Flight Simulators for Creative Learning

Edustation Flight Simulator, made by Hotseat Chassis
Edustation Flight Simulator, made by Hotseat Chassis

Last week I accepted delivery of the flight simulators we will use in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering: seven Edustation flight simulators, made in Waterbury, Connecticut by a company called Hotseat Chassis, Inc. The Edustation is made for the classroom and offers tutorial lessons along with a realistic simulation of about 50 different aircraft, including helicopters, fighter jets, airliners, as well as simple single engine airplanes. We purchased seven of them so that all six of our student crews (groups of four students), plus the teacher, can fly.

Mr. Holmes tests an Edustation
Mr. Holmes tests an Edustation

How will we use these simulators? The main way will be to teach the students the fundamentals of flight. Students will learn to fly, and in doing so, will learn how aircraft fly. They will also explore how the controls and power systems work on different aircraft. But the simulators offer much more–they give us a virtual way to test ideas of what happens in different situations in an airplane. For example, in studying how winds affect an airplane, rather than just reading about it, we will program various wind conditions in the simulator and study the effects firsthand.

Another potential aspect of using the flight simulators is gamification, the process of making learning activities into a game. This is a relatively new concept in education, though gamification has been a marketing technique for years. The idea is to make something more engaging by turning it into a game. The flight simulators provide a platform on which students can compete in various challenges. For instance, students might be asked to figure out how to search an area of the ocean for a missing sailboat, or to fly the most precise traffic pattern they can around an airport. In each case, they will have rules to follow, points to earn, and a chance to win.

No matter what way we use the flight simulators, we will be learning. They are a superb educational tool, and we are fortunate to have them. We will also share them with the rest of John Wallace Middle School once my students are comfortable with them and able to teach others how to use them.