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:


Learning the Engineering Design Process

During the last two weeks, the students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering have been learning and practicing the engineering design process (EDP). We follow an EDP we borrowed from NASA – click here for a Powerpoint explaining this process. The EDP is a methodical way to solve problems, and we emphasize to students that it is not just a process for engineers – it’s useful in many situations.

For the 8th graders, I started with a short review of what they learned and practiced last year as they did ten major engineering projects. We then started a project to design, build, and launch a model rocket that will accelerate as much as possible using a A8-3 engine. This project integrates with their science unit on force and motion. We will start by testing the rockets in the wind tunnel this week, then launch them and measure/calculate their acceleration next week. Here are photos of the 8th graders:

Academy 8th Graders Make Rocket Nose Cones on 3D Printers


For the 7th graders, Ms. Garavel introduced them to the NASA EDP. She then gave them a challenge to make a “cable car” that would take a marble as far as possible down a monofilament line rigged on an angle. Each student group, or crew, was given a baggie with several different materials, and they could use some or all of these materials in any way they chose. The students were given time limits for each step of the EDP. In the end, most crews were successful in making a cable car that traveled all the way down the line. It was an excellent way to reinforce the EDP with a hands on exercise. It also taught perseverance, as most cable cars did not work on the first test – the crews had to go back and refine their designs before they achieved success. Here are photos of the 7th graders:


Learning the Engineering Design Process with Model Rockets

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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