Integrated STEM Project: Designing Sundials

The 8th grade students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering have just completed an integrated STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) project where each crew (student groups of four to five students) designed a sundial, built a model of it, tested it, and presented it to Mr. Dias, our current Assistant Principal and next year’s Principal at John Wallace Middle School. The requirement given to the students was to design a sundial with an aerospace theme that could be built on the school grounds outside the academy. Mr. Dias saw all the designs presented, then he chose what he believed was the best design that would complement our school. The winning design, by Crew 4, uses a person as the gnomon (the part of the sundial that casts the shadow) and directs the person to stand on different places on the sundial, depending on the time of year, in order to accurately depict the time year-round.

So what makes this an “integrated project?” Integration means applying what is learned in one class to a problem in another class, or connecting concepts across two or more classes. We do this type of learning every day in the academy, and this project was especially integrated. The 8th graders have learned about the Solar System and how the Sun, Moon and planets move across the sky from an Earth observer’s point of view–they applied this knowledge to the sundial since the Sun changes its position in the sky not only hour to hour, but also day to day. The students used astronomy software to plot the Sun’s position every hour from 6:00AM to 6:00PM on both the summer and winter solstices and on the spring and fall equinoxes. They used this information to design the hour lines on their sundials. Drawing these lines required knowledge of circles, which is the unit in geometry we are studying–so students applied their knowledge of central angles and angular motion to design the sundial’s face with its hour lines. Half of the students are also studying air navigation, including latitude and longitude, so they applied that knowledge to the problem of designing the gnomon whose angle depends on latitude. Finally, the students applied what they have learned the past two years in the academy about the engineering design process and presentation skills. All of these connections made this a highly integrated project.

Here are photos of each crew with models of their sundials:

Crew 1’s design would be on a pillar and is based on the academy logo with the gear as the sundial’s base and the red arrow as  the gnomon.
Crew 2’s design would be on a pillar and has an aerospace theme with celestial objects marking each hour.
Crew 3’s design uses the current academy sign, shaped like an aircraft tail, as the gnomon, then rocks in the ground would mark the hour lines.
WINNING DESIGN – Crew 4’s design would be laid out in the ground with pavers and requires a person to stand as gnomon on the appropriate month to cast a shadow and give the time.
Crew 5’s design is a large cement slab sundial in the ground with a gnomon shaped like an aircraft wing.
Crew 6’s design would be on a pillar and has interchangeable disks for each season  so that the sundial is accurate year round.

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!).

Learning by Teaching – Academy Students Teach Flying

Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering hosted teachers from the four grade level teams in our school, John Wallace Middle School, over the past week. But the students did not just welcome the teachers–they also taught them to fly in our STEMPilot flight simulators. Ms. Garavel had her 7th grade academy students plan a lesson for the teachers they taught from the 5th and 7th grade teams. The students wrote lesson plans and even assigned homework! My 8th grade students also planned lessons and showed the 6th and 8th grade teams how to fly a Cessna 172, then more advanced maneuvers on a Boeing 747 and a F/A-18 fighter aircraft. The teachers also got tours of our academy and saw how the students learn all aspects of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) in an integrated approach. Giving students this opportunity to be teachers definitely challenged them and helped them become better learners.

Here are photos of the 7th grade academy students teaching the 5th grade and 7th grade teachers and our principal, Mr. Milardo, to fly:



Here are photos of the 8th graders teaching the 6th grade and 8th grade teachers to fly:


Integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math in STEM Lessons

The Academy of Aerospace and Engineering at John Wallace Middle School is a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) program. This means that we strive to integrate those four subjects into every lesson. It is not always possible, but it is the goal. We met this goal this week in 8th grade science where students did a lab where they extracted the DNA from a strawberry, examined it with the naked eye, then with a microscope. The science started when we began the week with an interactive lecture and web quest about genetics and DNA. Then we did the lab as an inquiry activity where the students were told how to extract the DNA from a strawberry, but they were not told what to expect they could see. I polled the class before the lab on who thought they would be able to see DNA, and most students thought they would be able to. I emphasized that scientists are skeptical – they must be convinced by evidence. We did the lab, and the students saw some fibrous material using just their eyes (no microscopes) after the extraction process. The next day, we prepared microscope slides of the fibrous material, then the students saw the fibers in more detail. I asked if they had seen DNA, and about half thought they had. That’s when we did the math lesson. We looked up the width of a DNA molecule — it’s about two nanometers, hundreds of times too small to be seen with an optical microscope. We discussed the sizes of various microscopic objects and what power would be required to see them. Then we learned about the technology behind electron microscopes, and the students learned how scientists can use these instruments to see DNA and other molecular-sized objects. The students concluded that they had seen multiple strands of DNA wound like a rope in the fibers they observed, not individual DNA strands. Finally, we discussed the engineering challenges and opportunities of using nanotechnology. In the end, we covered S-T-E-M though out this week. Coincidentally, Ms. Garavel was introducing the use of microscopes and making microscope slides to the 7th graders. Here are photos from these lessons:

8th graders making naked eye observations of extracted strawberry DNA:

8th graders making microscope observations of extracted strawberry DNA, along with one image of the DNA:

7th graders using microscopes in inquiry lesson:

What Is the Purpose of a STEM Academy?

Final flight test 2
Students flight test gliders they designed and built after weeks of studying aeronautics

Another school year is about to begin, and this is the second year of operation for the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering at John Wallace Middle School. This year, we add 25 new 7th graders to our program, while last year’s 7th graders advance to 8th grade, making for 50 total students. Students in both grades will take their science classes and two aerospace and engineering electives in the academy, and most 8th graders will also take math there. Nevertheless, math is integrated into all subjects, as all subjects are integrated together. But what is the purpose of an academy that stresses science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in its curriculum?

Academy students and Mr. Holmes at Connecticut Invention Convention

The purpose of a STEM academy is obviously to improve students’ perception and abilities in STEM. By becoming more adept at science, technology, engineering, and math through daily emphasis and practice, the students can begin to envision themselves in a STEM college program or a STEM career field. There are current and forecast shortages in STEM, so this helps society. STEM careers are challenging and rewarding, so this also helps the students.

Students design a seismograph after studying NASA’s use of seismographs on Mars

There is a more fundamental purpose of a STEM academy program – to prepare students for life, regardless of the college major or career path they choose. Students in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering learn to think critically and solve problems. They practice asking questions, then seeking answers in a scientific way. They find solutions to problems using an engineering design process. They support their conclusions or solutions with facts and mathematical reasoning, and they learn to explain them simply and clearly. All of these skills prepare students for life in a technical society. We also acknowledge that STEM skills alone are not always enough to solve all types of problems or answer all types of questions, so we discuss more holistic approaches whenever appropriate. The goal is that students are ready to succeed in their future education, including college, in their careers, and as informed citizens.

Group photo UCONN
Academy Students and Intern Kate Morehead on field trip to UCONN

For parents of the academy’s new 7th grade class, this year is going to be a big change from the past. Your students will go through an adjustment period, then take off in their learning as they realize what they can do. Here is advice from last year’s 7th graders:

“Welcome to the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering! You just got accepted into a great program.”

“You will find it much different than all the other classes you have. There will be more thinking and effort.”

“You are going to have more freedom, but with more freedom comes more responsibility.”

“Another tip is changing your mind from operating like a 6th grader to a much older high school student. I’m not telling you to grow up really quickly, I am just telling you to be more mature.”

“We get work done, but  ALWAYS HAVE FUN.”

“Over the year that I have been in the Academy, there have been so many interesting and exciting projects and labs (far more than the regular classes).”

“You don’t just learn academics. You learn many teamwork, leadership, cooperation, and responsibility skills.”

“The academy is a great opportunity and I would not back down from it. I hope that you and your new classmates have a fantastic year at this new academy and hope you enjoy the experience!”

Contact me anytime with questions. I look forward to another great school year!

CyberPatriot team fall 2015
Academy’s CyberPatriot team for 2015-2016

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.

Academy Showcase – March 7th

Newington Public Schools will be hosting an informational showcase on both of our middle school academies on March 7, 2016 from 6:00 to 7:30 PM at Martin Kellogg Middle School in the Café. All students and family members who are interested in learning more about the Academy of Biomedical Sciences or the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering should attend. Teachers and students of the academies will be available to talk about their experiences as well as expectations of the program. Please note this will be an informal, drop in program, so you can come by anytime between 6:00 and 7:30 PM.

Any 6th grade student in Newington Public Schools may apply to either academy. Click HERE to download “Academy Application 2016” from my Resources page. This application and the essay (explained in the application) are due no later than April 8th. You may turn them in or mail them to:

Kim Davis, Director of Extended Learning
c/o NPS Curriculum Office
131 Cedar Street
Newington, CT 06111


Encouraging Creative Tinkering in a Makerspace

When I was hired to plan out the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering at John Wallace Middle School, one aspect I built in was a makerspace. According to Open Education Database, makerspaces are “DIY spaces where people can gather to create, invent, and learn” and “often have 3D printers, software, electronics, craft and hardware supplies and tools, and more.” It is more than a workshop. The ultimate makerspace can be an entrepreneurial incubator – a perfect example is the Tech Valley Center of Gravity in Troy, New York, which started as a humble makerspace in a basement and has mushroomed to fill a multi-story building housing a large makerspace, plus financial and legal advisors for new entrepreneurs and inventors. If you want to learn more about makerspaces and how to use them in school, I will be giving a workshop along with some of my students at the Tech2Learn conference on April 23rd at Quinnipiac University’s School of Education – this event will also have many other workshops to incorporate technology in the classroom.

For our middle school academy, the makerspace is a place where students can learn and practice various types of creative design. Examples include computer aided design (CAD) and 3D printing, wood working, arts and crafts, and basic reverse engineering, taking things apart to see how they work. Over the past several months since school started, I have given the students different design challenges and activities to learn all of these types of design. We are now focused on preparing for the Connecticut Invention Convention, and the makerspace is the perfect venue to design and build our inventions. I also have begun giving the students one day per week, “Free Fridays,” where they can design however and whatever they like. They have the freedom to tinker, build,  and experiment. To keep them somewhat focused, I only require that they set a goal and track their progress in meeting it. The students love this opportunity and have taken full advantage of it. The following photos give some idea of their activities:

Reverse Engineering in Makerspace
Brainstorming & Collaborating in Makerspace

Using CAD to 3D Print in the Makerspace:


Woodworking in the Makerspace:


Getting Guest Speakers to Engage Students with STEM

At the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering at John Wallace Middle School we invite in a guest speaker about twice per month on average. All of these speakers are people involved with aerospace or engineering in some way or another. My goal is also for the speaker’s main focus to match up with the current unit of study. Today we had Senior Master Sergeant Babcock, Connecticut Air National Guard, come and speak about the aircrew flight equipment career field, formerly known as life support. This career field involves the maintenance and preparation of equipment such as oxygen masks, parachutes, and survival gear that keep aircrew alive at high altitudes and in emergencies. This matched up well with our current science unit on the human body systems, especially the respiratory and circulatory systems, and with our current aerospace science unit on the physiology of flight and space travel. Sergeant Babcock gave an outstanding presentation explaining the effects of high altitude and low pressure on the human body, answered questions, and demonstrated various pieces of aircrew flight equipment which the students could then try on. The following photos show the students donning helmets, parachutes, and various oxygen systems. This lesson is an authentic application of the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) topics we are studying, and it is one of the best ways to reinforce these topics.


Teaching STEM with Various Design Challenges

Academy Students Design Food Supply for Mission to Mars
Academy Students Design Food Supply for Mission to Mars

Recently at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering at John Wallace Middle School, students delved some major topics by doing engineering design challenges: A mission to Mars, spacesuits, and bridges. Engineering design is one of the Practices in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), so incorporating engineering design projects into the curriculum is one way to meet the standards – and obviously a great way to help students learn how to think critically and solve problems.

For the first topic, we studied how NASA, SpaceX, and Mars One are all looking at missions to Mars. We then held a class debate on the pros and cons of going to Mars. We had studied aircrew life support systems a few weeks ago, so now we focused on the major life support systems required on a manned mission to Mars. With all of these systems, we also looked at how they protect and provide support at the cellular and human body system level. Finally, the students designed specific life support systems for the trip to Mars and for surviving on Mars. Each student crew (group of 4 students) had a different aspect of the challenge. Their designs were presented in Powerpoint presentations to the class, and they are on display in the academy. One presentation about supplying food for a mission to Mars, Yum, is featured in the picture here.

The second topic was all about spacesuits. We have been studying the physiology of aviation and of space, and this week’s focus was on the life support systems required by astronauts, especially spacesuits. The students started with a web quest on spacesuits – NASA provides outstanding interactive sites: 1) This one deals with spacesuit evolution over NASA’s history, and 2) this one shows a virtual spacesuit which can be examined piece-by-piece. Then I gave a demonstration with a vacuum bell jar how a vacuum may affect the human body. We saw how water boils at room temperature in a vacuum and how a marshmallow “Peep” expands in a vacuum, simulating the blood and gas pockets in the human body. Whenever I give such demonstrations, the students have to first hypothesize what they expect to happen, then they observe what actually happens, then they discuss the results and draw conclusions. They write this up in their science notebooks for me to grade later. Finally, the students did an engineering design challenge to make a spacesuit for a Peep. Each student crew got a small bag of materials and a Peep. They had to make the spacesuit so that the Peep would not expand and suffer in the vacuum bell jar, simulating the vacuum of space. Only one crew was successful the first time, while the rest had catastrophic failures. However, in the redesigns, most crews succeeded in protecting their Peeps. We concluded with a look at actual spacesuit design, and the students learned how spacesuits have a strong outer layer to contain the astronaut from expanding. The winning designs for the Peep challenge used this principle. Here are photos of the students making the spacesuits:


The final design challenge was our bridge challenge, mentioned in the previous post – this week we finally got to test the final designs. Here is Crew 5 and their winning design holding ten kilograms without breaking as it spans a 35-centimeter gap:

Crew 5's Bridge Holding 10 Kilograms

Here are other crews and their bridge designs that held from 5 to 8 kilograms before failing: