Building Teamwork Is First Step for New STEM Students

We returned to school this week at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering. As a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) program, we foster 21st century skills along with the technical disciplines of STEM. This means we show students the importance of critical thinking, problem solving, communication, creativity, and teamwork. Teamwork is taught from the moment the students walk into the academy, as everything else builds on the their ability to work together. On day one, they join a “crew,” a student group of about four students with whom they do everything in the academy. We also have the 8th graders, the “old heads,” teach the new 7th graders many of our academy norms and basic skills. On the first day of school, the 8th graders cheered in the hallway to welcome the 7th graders as they entered the academy. Today, the second day of school, the 8th graders taught the 7th graders how to operate and fly the STEMPilot Edustation flight simulators, and they explained our makerspace. When we go on field trips, each 8th grade crew pairs up with a 7th grade crew and shepherds them around. In many other ways, the students learn that teamwork and collaboration lead to a more successful outcome.

Here are photos of each class by our academy “tail fin” sign–Ms. Garavel is with the 7th graders, and I am with the 8th graders:


Here are photos from today’s flight simulator and makerspace orientation:


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:


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: