Retrospective of STEM Activities

Students in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering have completed about half the school year, and as 2017 ends, here are some of the accomplishments and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) activities of these students so far this school year:

  • The 7th graders have achieved basic proficiency in science inquiry, engineering design, and researching and presenting topics, while the 8th graders have achieved advanced proficiency in these areas.
  • Here are the major engineering design projects the students have done so far:
    • 7th grade:
      • Rube Goldberg project – design and build a Rube Goldberg machine that demonstrates several simple machines.
      • Glider challenge – design, build, and fly a hand launched glider that flies the farthest.
      • Propeller challenge – design, 3D print, and fly an improved propeller to make a Guillow rubber band powered airplane fly the farthest.
      • Aerospace board game project – design, build, and play a board game that teaches and tests players in their aerospace knowledge.
    • 8th grade:
      • Model rocket challenge – design, build, and launch a model rocket that climbs the fastest and highest.
      • Re-engine/Re-imagine challenge – design and present a plan to re-engine a fleet of airliners with Pratt&Whitney geared turbofan engines, and a plan to re-imagine the use of the old jet engines — both plans were presented to and judged by Mr. Dias, school principal,┬áin a business presentation format.
      • Electric cargo airplane challenge – based on a high school/college challenge sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) – design, build, and fly a model airplane powered by two 6-volt motors to lift the highest possible amount of cargo weight (in pennies).
      • Amusement park challenge – design and present an amusement park ride that demonstrates the principles of circular motion and accounts for centripetal acceleration.
      • Aerospace arcade game – design, build, and play an aerospace themed arcade game that teaches and tests knowledge of aerospace and physical science.
  • Academy students have taken three major field trips:
  • The academy has hosted a series of speakers and mentors:
    • Two computer science professionals, Ryan Darge and Emily Failla, have given a presentation on cyber security to all students and mentored our CyberPatriot teams.
    • Engineering professionals from GKN Aerospace and PCX Aerostructures have visited several times to mentor students in engineering projects, and Mr. Bruce Fiedorowicz of GKN gave a presentation on GKN and the aerospace industry.
    • UCONN Engineering Ambassadors, undergraduate students at UCONN who major in engineering and do outreach to middle and high schools, came and spoke to our students and did workshops with them.
    • UCONN students in AIAA came and mentored students in engineering projects and spoke about the engineering program, especially in aerospace.
    • Teenage inventor and entrepreneur, Ayana Klein of 3Dux/Design, gave a Skype presentation to our students about how she started her company.
    • Several former academy students have visited to share their experiences at Newington High School.
  • Our two CyberPatriot teams have completed two rounds of the competition and are currently #2 and #3 out of eight active middle school teams in Connecticut.

This is not a complete list, but it shows the depth and breadth of experiences our students have gotten so far. Ms. Garavel and I look forward to a productive spring semester with these students!

Here is a photo collage from the past semester:

Teaching the F-Word in STEM: Failure

Each year, new students in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering go through an adjustment phase as they learn our STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum and our method of exploratory learning. Almost gone are scripted activities, and instead students are tasked to develop their own experiments, research topics of their own choosing, and build objects of their own design. While many students find this academic freedom exciting, many also find it disconcerting and even frightening–they might fail! They often have never failed at anything in school. They have always followed directions and gotten straight A’s. Now they feel threatened by the uncertainty of choosing their own path in learning and discovery.

This fear of failure is especially true as students begin to design and build things in our makerspace. Many an academic whiz kid is all thumbs in using tools, and their ideas on paper do not necessarily come out as expected when they try building them. Yet, they learn that our grading of these projects using our Engineering Design Process Rubric is not based on how well they hammer and glue things together, but in how well they think through a design and go through a deliberate process to improve it. None of our students following the engineering design process will “fail.” We also study the trials and tribulations of real-world inventors from the Wright Brothers to Elon Musk and SpaceX, and students see how the failures of many early inventions eventually led to success as the inventors persevered to make improvements. Eventually, our students learn that failure is not the F-word, but a necessary step on the path to success.

The first makerspace project our 7th graders do tends to be where they face failure for the first time. This project requires each crew (group of about four students) to design and build a Rube Goldberg machine that demonstrates a series of simple machines, one of the main topics in their science class. It is a good first makerspace project since the students can use junk materials and scraps that cost almost nothing and allow for mistakes. The culminating event is a demonstration of the machines by each crew. Often, the machines don’t work, or they break down during the demonstration. Many of the students get upset under the pressure to present. But in the end, the students learn it’s okay if everything does not work out, as long as they can explain why and show how to improve their designs. This year our 8th graders also came out and offered their encouragement during the Rube Goldberg machine demonstrations, and many of them said how they had learned to embrace failure. Having spent over a year in our academy, they now know that failure is not the F-word, but an expected part of inventing and learning.

Here are photos of the students as they build their machines, then demonstrate them: