Learning Using Various Models

The students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering are focusing on the use of models this week, though we use models throughout the school year in various ways. A model can be physical, conceptual, or mathematical, and we use all three types. The use of systems and system models is also one of the cross-cutting concepts promoted in the Next Generation Science Standards, the latest guidance on how to teach science effectively.

For the 7th graders, Ms. Garavel introduced the idea of models, then gave the students an assignment to assemble a model aircraft or spacecraft, do a report on it, and present it to the class. The students will also soon be flying model gliders, then designing their own model gliders. These students are learning that models can be a simple way to learn about a complex machine, such as an airplane. They are also learning some basic techniques for building. While the assignment and tasks are fairly simple, they serve as a good model for later on when the students learn to build in our makerspace using hand tools, power tools, and 3D printing. The following photos show the 7th graders assembling their models and preparing their reports.


I am teaching the 8th graders, and we are using model rockets to study motion, primarily the concepts of distance and displacement, speed and velocity, acceleration, and force. The students had to design their model rockets to accelerate as much as possible while all using the same model rocket engine. After some preliminary labs where we studied motion, we discussed how we could graph a model rocket’s motion when it is launched. A graph is a mathematical model. The students saw how a velocity vs. time graph could be used to find the altitude of the rocket by calculating the area under the velocity curve. We also used a wind tunnel to model how drag will affect the rocket inflight. The following photos show model rockets and the 8th graders building, testing, and launching them and measuring their altitude and time to reach altitude – and to show how much these students have progressed in the past year, note that a student is running the launch pad (and he did a superb job, maintaining a safe, efficient launch schedule), and all the students’ rockets launched and flew straight, stable flight paths, compared to a 50% success rate the first time they did such a project last year.


Finally, in the last two weeks the students have heard guest speakers who serve as role models. In celebration of the US Air Force’s birthday, we heard Captain Nicole Robillard, US Air Force, speak via Skype about her service as the supervisor of airfield operations at her base in England. I met her there when I was traveling in England this summer, and what struck me was this very professional officer was from Bristol, Connecticut. What was especially impressive was that she and her three sisters all attended the US Air Force Academy, an extremely selective college. We also heard another guest speaker this week, Donna Men, a senior at Western Connecticut State University majoring in accounting. Donna was inspirational as a role model, as she had moved to this country from Cambodia when she was ten years old, speaking no English. She went on to become a successful high school student (and my student for three years) who earned so much scholarship money, she got a refund from WestConn every year. She also has already gotten a job offer from Deloitte, a world class accounting firm. These role models and the other forms of modeling are helping the students at the academy become better learners and better citizens.

Egg Drop Challenge with a Twist: Water Recovery

For the last engineering design challenge of the year, I gave students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering an old problem with a new twist. We have been studying rockets, and the latest aspect we looked at was how rockets or spacecraft can be returned to earth. We looked at the re-entry and recovery methods used by different spacecraft. The most common recovery system for US spacecraft is to parachute into the ocean to be picked up by ship. Therefore, I gave the students a challenge: design a recovery system that will land an egg in a “spacecraft” gently enough on water so that it does not break. The students researched how various real spacecraft recovery systems worked, then brainstormed ideas. Most included a parachute, and several included airbags (balloons) or padding around the spacecraft. When the students finished building their designs, I dropped each spacecraft from about 3 meters up into a kiddie pool (the ocean). In the end, almost all the eggs survived. This was a one-day challenge that was a great way to end the school year. Here are some photos:

Modeling STEM with Model Rockets

After a washout last week with rain everyday, this week at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering we finally started launching model rockets. Many schools use model rockets in one way or another, often as a “fun” lesson at the end of the year. Rockets are always fun, but they can also be the basis of a rigorous science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) unit. I used model rockets to model many different real-life STEM activities and careers with my students:

  • The students studied how real rockets work and compared rocket engines to jet engines which we had studied earlier in the year.
  • They studied the National Association of Rocketry’s Model Rocket Safety Code and took a safety quiz that required a 100% pass rate. I explained how Air Force pilots must memorize safety procedures and cannot fly until they prove 100% proficient in safety and emergency procedures.
  • They had a choice of two model rocket kits to build and chose those that met the objectives of an experiment they devised. Each student crew (group of four) had two model rockets to build. Designing their own experiment is now standard procedure for my students.
  • They built their model rockets by following the kit’s directions and with minimal help from me. Some mistakes were made, and the students had to figure out how to fix them. We discussed how this related to actual engineering projects where building anything never goes exactly according to plan.
  • They learned about rocket forces and stability, relating these to what we learned earlier in the year about airplanes. Then they measured their rocket’s center of gravity and center of pressure to make sure it was stable.
  • They built and practiced using an altitude measuring device that measured the angle of a model rocket’s apogee (highest point), and they learned how to use trigonometry to calculate the altitude using this angle. They practiced this skill, modeling good measuring techniques.
  • They learned how to set up a rocket range with a launch area (run by a launch control officer), a preparation area (to prepare rockets for launch), an observation area (where students used the altitude measuring devices and timers to measure each launch), and a recovery team (to get the rockets after they landed). We went over this in detail before the first launch. We also practiced using walkie-talkies between the launch control officer (call sign, LCO) and the altitude measuring team in the observation area (call sign, Altitude).
  • We put it all together and launched a total of 25 rockets in two periods yesterday and today – and with no significant problems. The students are analyzing the data from their launches to determine the performance of their rockets. The next step will be for each crew to pick an aspect of the model rocket to redesign and improve, then we will launch their improved rockets in the next couple weeks.

Here are some photos of a launch, plus each crew with their rockets (two rockets were unavailable for photos due to drifting off range)…

Preparing rocket for launch
Blast Off! Note observers in distance – they measured altitude and time aloft


Combining Inquiry and Engineering Design in STEM Lessons

Lab activity with air launched paper rockets

Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering are learning about rockets. Our current science unit is on earth science, focusing on the internal and external structural changes of the Earth. We just finished plate tectonics, earthquakes, and volcanoes, and we are starting to look at the rock cycle, weathering, and erosion. To connect these topics to an aerospace theme, I have shown how scientists use remote sensing to detect, measure, and analyze these changes on the Earth, and on other planets and moons. Aerospace remote sensing uses aircraft and satellites, but we also looked at maritime remote sensing using ships and submarines. Now we are looking at how satellites and other spacecraft get to space, primarily using rockets. I timed this unit to coincide with spring so that we can build and launch rockets outside. It also coincides with our algebra unit on quadratic functions that describe how rockets change position over time.

Teaching about rockets involves two parallel strands–teaching how actual rockets launched by NASA and other space agencies work, and model rocketry where students see how a rocket operates firsthand. The first step in model rocketry is to learn some basics about rocket flight and safety. Therefore, we just did an inquiry lab where students built simple paper rockets launched by air pressure. It was an inquiry activity, as I did not give the students any guidance except to determine a dependent variable they could measure to determine the rocket’s performance based on an independent variable they could change. The lab also involved engineering design practices, as the students had to decide what modifications they made to their rocket to test its performance, then build those modifications and test them during multiple launches. The lab was a lot of fun, and a perfect way to get outside on a nice spring Friday. The following photos show the students designing and building their rockets:



The rockets were launched using a L-shaped 1/2-inch PVC pipe that was duct taped to an empty 2-liter soda bottle. The paper rocket slipped over the end of the pipe, and stepping on the bottle provided a burst of air pressure for launch. The record distance was over 130 feet–not bad for a piece of paper! Here are the students launching and testing their rocket  performance:IMG_2474


Intern Kate Morehead volunteers to measure distances of rocket launches
Note the rocket flying through the air at the top of the photo – they flew high and far!