stem

Helping Students See Themselves in College STEM Programs

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Students from the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering visited the University of Connecticut (UCONN) campus at Storrs today. We were hosted by the UCONN Engineering Ambassadors, a service organization made up of undergraduate engineering majors who do outreach to middle and high school students to show them what it takes to succeed at college as a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) major. The Ambassadors gave us an outstanding tour of the campus, they provided a panel discussion with a diverse group of engineering students, and they led us in some fun STEM challenges. The 8th grade academy students also got to tour UCONN’s cogeneration plant, a uniquely energy efficient power plant. This field trip gave the academy students a firsthand look at what it’s like to be an engineering major at a big university, and it taught them what it takes to succeed there. ┬áHere are photos from the trip:

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Helping Students See Themselves in STEM Careers

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Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering get many opportunities to see themselves pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) careers later on in life. I frequently let them know that a STEM career may not have the word “science,” “technology,” “engineering,” or “math” in the job title — any career can involve STEM skills if you have to explore new topics, think critically, or solve problems. Nevertheless, by majoring in one or more of the STEM disciplines in college, students are more likely to be able to use these skills in whatever career they choose. Additionally, employers are saying there are not enough STEM graduates to fill available positions, so students who major in STEM fields are much more likely to get multiple job offers.

One way we help academy students understand college STEM programs is by inviting in the UCONN Engineering Ambassadors. These are undergraduate engineering students at UCONN in Storrs, Connecticut, who volunteer to reach out to middle and high school students to explain what STEM is and what it’s like being a STEM major. They came to the academy two years ago, and we had three of them come to the academy this past week. One ambassador gave a presentation on how SpaceX is planning a massive worldwide internet service, then he explained how he had grown up in Haiti and New York City before coming to UCONN. The other two ambassadors explained how the Hubble Space Telescope works, and they also described their personal backgrounds. Our students were full of questions, and in the reflection afterwards, they showed they learned a lot about college STEM programs from the Engineering Ambassadors. Here are photos of the visit:

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We have follow on activities with the Engineering Ambassadors when we go to UCONN on a field trip later this month. They will give us tours, have a panel of students with whom our students can talk, and have some fun STEM activities for us. Overall, the Engineering Ambassadors do an outstanding job in helping students have a vision for STEM in college and beyond.

Another group that helps our students envision themselves in STEM careers are the UCONN engineering students in the local chapter of AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics). These students came to the academy last year, and they will come later this month to help mentor the 8th graders who are doing an AIAA engineering challenge and to speak to all our students about engineering at UCONN.

Finally, we have mentors and speakers come from various aerospace firms to the academy. This year so far, we have had mentors from PCX Aerostructures come in and mentor the 8th graders in the AIAA engineering challenge, and we will have a guest speaker for all students come from PCX, GKN Aerospace, and Sikorsky Aircraft. Additionally, we plan to visit Pratt & Whitney in December on a field trip, and the students will get to learn about careers there. All of these companies demonstrate how STEM graduates can have challenging and fulfilling careers.

 

Teaching the F-Word in STEM: Failure

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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:

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Extending Learning through Field Trips

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This week, students in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering went on a field trip to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. We started our tour of the museum by seeing the planetarium show, Dark Universe, narrated by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. This was a 4D show that gave an outstanding explanation of the origin of our universe, explaining the Big Bang theory and the role of dark matter and dark energy in making up the universe. After the show, the students went in six crews, or groups, and went through a cycle of six stations in the museum that Ms. Garavel and I had planned out. The stations were parts of the museum where the exhibits related to the middle school science curriculum. At each station, the students had 30 minutes to look at the exhibits, then answer an open ended question assigned to each grade level. The day after the trip, we went over their answers and discussed the trip. Students varied in what their favorite part of the museum was, but the planetarium show was a clear favorite.

Field trips provide an extension of what we learn in the classroom, and they especially help extend STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) lessons. While we can show videos and discuss topics such as the Big Bang or evolution in science class, only at a museum like this can students see a world-class show that explains the Big Bang theory or an extensive fossil collection that explains evolution.

We have three more field trips planned this school year, and all of them will provide extensions of our STEM lessons. In November, we will tour the UCONN campus with the Engineering Ambassadors, undergraduate engineering students who volunteer to show middle and high school students what engineering is all about. In December we will tour the New England Air Museum and Pratt&Whitney’s Customer Training Center, and at both locations we will see aircraft and engines that students have studied in the classroom. In April, we will attend a planetarium show and get a campus tour at Central Connecticut State University, learning about astronomy and learning about our closest four-year college. All of these field trips will extend student learning in STEM.

Here are some photos from the field trip to the American Museum of Natural History:

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STEM Academy Provides Enriched Learning

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Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering have an integrated STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum that not only interconnects the four classes that students take, but also enriches their learning with diverse activities and experiences. Here are examples of activities students have done over the past two weeks with photos:

The 8th grade academy students taught the 7th grade academy students how to use different tools in the makerspace safely. The 7th graders can now begin doing projects that require building prototypes by using the makerspace resources.

 

The 8th graders finished a major engineering design project where they worked to design, build, and launch the fastest possible model rocket. Launching over three days, they achieved 29 successful launches of their six rockets (one per crew). Student Vidhisha Thakkar was the launch control officer, managing all launch operations.

To learn more about cybersecurity and prepare for the CyberPatriot competition, both 7th and 8th graders listened to guest speaker and CyberPatriot mentor, Emily Failla, as she described the intricacies of Windows operating systems and the security features they have.

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As they continue to learn about aircraft and the science of flight, the 7th graders did a lab comparing the flight performance of two store-bought balsa gliders. Soon they will get an engineering project to design, build, and test an improved glider.

The 8th graders got an assignment to help NASA with their Asteroid Redirect Mission in case an asteroid comes hurtling towards Earth. Their project is to design a way to use rockets to push an asteroid far enough off course so that it misses Earth. This requires an application of the concept of impulse, or applied force over time, an extension of what they are learning in 8th Grade Science with Ms. Garavel.

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Finally, a few academy students took advantage of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) Young Eagles program where experienced pilots from EAA take up students on free flights. While this is not an official part of our program and not sponsored by our school district, we have had students participate in the Young Eagles program several times with EAA Chapter 27 at Meriden-Markham Airport.

Again, all these activities happened over the past two weeks, and this is only some of what we do in the academy. Enriched learning motivates students to do their best. One 7th grader was asked if the academy was what he thought it would be, and his response was, “Oh no, it is so much more than I imagined!”

Spiral Approach to STEM Learning

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Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering get to learn topics that most other students may not see until late in high school or in college, if at all. Examples include aerodynamics, astrophysics, aircraft and rocket design, and many other aerospace and engineering topics. While our school district promotes mastery based learning, which we use in our basic science and math classes, it is unrealistic for a middle school student to achieve mastery in aerodynamics or other advanced STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) topics–this is where a spiral approach makes sense.

What do these terms mean? Mastery based learning is the idea that students should learn a subject incrementally and achieve mastery, or a defined level of understanding and competence, before moving on to the next increment. We use this approach in both our science and math courses where we work with students to fully understand a topic before we move on to the next topic, and where each topic is defined by one or more state curriculum standards. In contrast, spiral learning is when students learn a subject at some level, then move on, but return later to learn more about the subject at a deeper level. Depending on the subject and the grade of the student, mastery of the subject may or may not be appropriate. This spiral approach is perfect for our elective courses in the academy where we want to repeatedly expose students to higher level concepts that are used in colleges and industry so that the students can envision themselves succeeding in these subjects some time in the future. The majority of US students do not pursue science or engineering, and one big reason is because they have no idea what a scientist or engineer does. By exposing students to firsthand experiences where they do science and engineering tests and build things using an engineering design process, they can see themselves becoming scientists and engineers someday. Using a spiral approach makes these types of experiences more meaningful, as the students see themselves improving in their knowledge and competence over time.

One example from the past week in the academy is a spiral approach to aerodynamics. The seventh graders did a basic project making a FPG-9 (a glider made from a 9-inch foam plate), then flight testing it outside. The glider has a rudder and elevons (combination ailerons and elevator), and students had to do an inquiry activity to see how the flight controls work. Later in the week, the students started an activity where they build a model aircraft or spacecraft, research it, and present their model and report to the class. These activities connected to what they were learning in science and in their flight simulator lessons. Meanwhile, the 8th graders, being more advanced in the academy program, are using a GDJ Flotec wind tunnel this week to measure the relative drag of the model rockets they designed and built over the past two weeks. Their task is to make the fastest possible rocket powered by an Estes A8-3 engine. The students are studying forces in science and vectors in geometry, so we put that together to discuss the net force on the rocket, and the students understood they wanted to reduce the weight and drag as much as possible in their designs. After wind tunnel testing, one crew repeatedly refined their rocket and cut the drag almost in half. We launch in the coming week. I do not intend for these students to achieve mastery in aerodynamics, but by periodically doing fun activities involving aerodynamics, and by making each activity more challenging than the last one, the students eventually achieve a high level of understanding in a complex STEM topic.

Here are photos of the 7th graders with their FPG-9s and models:

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Here are the 8th graders using the wind tunnel and photos of each crew with their rocket:

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Learning by Doing: Hands On & Minds On

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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:

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Here are photos of the 8th graders in action:

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