Using the Engineering Design Process to Teach Service Learning

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In honor of the current Winter Olympics, the 8th grade students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering decided to organize their own Academy Olympic games for the academy 7th graders to play. Our students stay one hour longer in school every day, and this extra period is the perfect time for hands on projects, STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) competitions, flying the flight simulator, and going outside to fly model aircraft or model rockets. Winter can be challenging, as we are generally stuck indoors. Therefore, the Academy Olympics gave the students a great day of fun learning right before we went on February break. For the 8th graders, this became a service project, as they were doing the work to provide a fun learning activity for the 7th graders. We have done other service projects, or service learning, in the academy in the past, and it can be challenging getting 25 or more middle schoolers to organize a project. As I started working with the 8th graders on this service project, it occurred to me that the NASA engineering design process we use for engineering design projects was the perfect framework to guide us in conducting this project.

The way we used the engineering design process for this service project worked as follows–the traditional project planning words are in bold, while the engineering design process steps are in underlined italics:

  • The 8th graders first planned the olympic events by doing some research, then brainstorming various events.
  • Next they organized the events by having each crew (group of about four students) design its event in detail. Each crew also presented its design to the other crews and everyone discussed ideas to improve each event.
  • The 8th graders then prepared their events by building or modeling what was needed to play or compete in the event, along with score sheets and other materials.
  • The day before the Academy Olympics, the 8th graders rehearsed their events by having one crew play (test) the other’s event, then switching, and having each crew provide feedback to the other so that they could refine it.
  • Finally, on the day of the Academy Olympics, each crew conducted its event by presenting it to the 7th graders.

The events were:

  1. A knowledge game like Jeopardy.
  2. A team game based on “escape the room” where students had to answer a series of riddles.
  3. A quick design challenge.
  4. A physical fitness challenge (pushups or situps, then planks).
  5. A team game where one person guides another blind-folded person through a “mine field.”
  6. A flying challenge on the flight simulator.

Each 7th grader could sign up for three of these events, and each event took ten minutes. Scores were accumulated by crew, and Crew 6 was the final winner of the Academy Olympic games. To assess the 8th graders in this project, I modified our Engineering Design Process (EDP) Rubric and made it a Service Project EDP Rubric.

Here are photos of the 7th graders competing as the 8th graders run the events–notice that there are no adults directing anything–the students were 100% in control, as Ms. Garavel and I just monitored for safety and timing:


Afterwards, the 7th graders gave the 8th graders feedback–they enjoyed the games very much, and they had some constructive suggestions. The plan now is for the 7th graders to  organize and conduct a similar event in the spring for the 8th graders to compete in, then possibly to extend it to a local elementary school. Let the games begin!


Integrating STEM Lessons

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Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering benefit from an integrated STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) curriculum everyday, but some days we are able to completely integrate these four disciplines. Today was such a day for the 7th graders. In 7th grade science, they have learned about simple machines, and compared the way an airplane climbs to an inclined plane. In aerospace science, they have learned how to fly an airplane and control it. In algebra they are learning how to find the line of best fit for a set of data points using linear regression, and to judge how well the data is correlated. They also have learned to use TI-84 graphing calculators and STEMPilot Edustation flight simulators, two pieces of learning technology we use weekly. Today’s assignment was for each crew (group of 4 students) to fly a flight simulator as if they were a flight test crew, carefully holding a steady airspeed as they climbed to an altitude of 3000 feet. On the way up, the crew members who were not flying were tasked with timing the climb and noting the elapsed time at every 500 feet of altitude. We got six sets of data from the six crews, then averaged the times to reach each 500-foot increment. Then we discussed how to do the linear regression, and the students computed a linear equation for the line of best fit and calculated the correlation coefficient, which was almost perfect. We discussed how the slope of this line was the climb rate, and we converted into units that pilots use, feet per minute. All this was done in about 40 minutes–an outstanding performance–and every student was involved. Here are photos of the students on the flight simulators and their data table with calculations:


IMG_4114 copyClimb Rate data

Team Building as Part of STEM

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Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering work in collaborative teams of three to five students, or “crews,” every day in class as they learn science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). We emphasize working in teams as a 21st century skill. Sometimes we also give the 7th and 8th graders opportunities to work together in team building activities, usually doing something fun. On Wednesday, after the majority of academy students had a mathematics mid-term exam for most of the morning, we gave them an opportunity to do some team building by playing the games they had designed earlier in the school year, or other team games they brought in. Some also flew the flight simulator together. All in all, the students were given the period to have some fun while forming bonds of teamwork. Here are photos of the activities:


Focusing on the M in STEM: Preparing for Math Exams

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Most students in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering are studying for either Algebra I (Honors) or Geometry (Honors) exams to be taken this Wednesday. These mid-term exams will test their knowledge on all the content covered since the start of the school year. While the academy students are in middle school, which does not have exams, because the math classes are for high school credit, they require exams. To prepare for the exams, we have used a thick review guide provided by the math department in each class, and we had IXL strands for each unit. My approach has been to show the students how to break down this review into two or three day units, each of which is checked and covered before we move on to the next unit. The responsibility is mainly on the students, as I post my solutions to each unit of the review and let the students check their work against mine. Today we covered the last unit, and I am very proud of the students’ efforts to keep up with work and do a thorough job of review.

Focusing on math means that our usual approach of integrating all STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) classes has not been as strong as usual. Therefore, I have used this time instead to focus on how to apply what we have done for the math exam review as a model for other, future big projects. Big projects usually can be broken into smaller parts, each of which is easier to tackle and manage than the project as a whole. After we finish exams, I will ask the students to reflect on what they learned throughout this process so that they can get the maximum benefit from the experience. Here are photos of both 7th graders in Algebra and 8th graders in Geometry as they study and review in class:


Retrospective of STEM Activities

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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, in 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:

Making STEM Connections on Field Trips

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Students from the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering went on a field trip today to the New England Air Museum. Despite a delayed opening at school due to snow, we were able to visit the museum and see firsthand some of the aircraft and propulsion systems the students have been studying. The students were also tasked to pick an area of interest and to investigate it at the museum, then write a short summary of what they learned. All of these activities helped students make connections to the science, technology, engineering, and even math (STEM) they have been studying in the classroom. They also got to have some fun, such as dressing up in astronaut suits and going on a scavenger hunt. Here are photos from today’s trip:


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.  Here are photos from the trip: