STEM Academy Provides Enriched Learning

Posted on

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.


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.


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

Posted on

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:


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


Learning by Doing: Hands On & Minds On

Posted 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:


Building Teamwork Is First Step for New STEM Students

Posted on Updated on

We returned to school this week at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering. As a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) program, we foster 21st century skills along with the technical disciplines of STEM. This means we show students the importance of critical thinking, problem solving, communication, creativity, and teamwork. Teamwork is taught from the moment the students walk into the academy, as everything else builds on the their ability to work together. On day one, they join a “crew,” a student group of about four students with whom they do everything in the academy. We also have the 8th graders, the “old heads,” teach the new 7th graders many of our academy norms and basic skills. On the first day of school, the 8th graders cheered in the hallway to welcome the 7th graders as they entered the academy. Today, the second day of school, the 8th graders taught the 7th graders how to operate and fly the STEMPilot Edustation flight simulators, and they explained our makerspace. When we go on field trips, each 8th grade crew pairs up with a 7th grade crew and shepherds them around. In many other ways, the students learn that teamwork and collaboration lead to a more successful outcome.

Here are photos of each class by our academy “tail fin” sign–Ms. Garavel is with the 7th graders, and I am with the 8th graders:


Here are photos from today’s flight simulator and makerspace orientation:


Lessons Learned on Invention Convention

Posted on Updated on

Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering have competed in Invention Convention for the past two years (the academy’s entire existence), so it’s useful to reflect on what went well and what could be improved. Invention Convention is an outstanding STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) competition where each student designs and builds an invention, either a model or a prototype, and produces a trifold display, then presents these products to a panel of judges. We participated in Connecticut Invention Convention (CIC) both years, and this year we had four students make it to the national competition, National Invention Convention and Entrepreneurship Expo (NICEE).

CIC begins with a local competition that a teacher or advisor sets up in the school or community–I set up one in our academy facility, and I required all of my students to compete and invited other teachers to let their students compete. I followed the CIC guidance, which CIC provides through excellent one-day training sessions with loads of downloadable materials. We set up the area similar to the way the state and national competitions are run with students in “judging circles” of about six students each. CIC provides a process for students to follow to design and build their invention, but I used a similar NASA engineering design process that our academy uses. To get judges for the local competition, I recruited volunteers from two aerospace firms in our town, GKN Aerospace and PCX Aerostructures. CIC recommends using outside, impartial judges, vs. teachers or parents, and I found this to be excellent advice. The first year I did all this, I gave my students some informal time to present their inventions to one another before the competition. Their feedback after the competition was that they had some difficulty knowing what to say to the judges. Therefore, this year I gave my students a few days to practice presenting. We started with a day where we brainstormed as a class on what to say, then we took those items and created a 2-minute pitch that every student practiced and gave to the class. In feedback after this year’s competition, many students felt the pitch was helpful, including those that competed all the way up to NICEE.

Our experience at each level of Invention Convention this year was very positive. I have posted previously on our local Newington Invention Convention, on the Central Regional CIC, and and on the state CIC. In summary, this year we had about 60 students compete locally, of whom nine (15%) were allowed by CIC rules to advance to the regional competition–the nine top inventors picked by the judges. Of these nine, eight (89%) advanced from the regionals to the state competition (CIC). Of these eight state competitors, four (50%) advanced to the national competition (NICEE) and won major awards at CIC. These percentages are very high, well above average, and I attribute them to our continual focus on creative work and engineering design in the academy and on our preparation for Invention Convention following CIC guidance.

This year was the first time we sent students to NICEE. The competition was held at a small venue, the US Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, VA, and only one parent was allowed in with each student. I thought this was unfortunate, as I would have liked to attend. Next year’s competition at the Ford Museum in Michigan should allow for more people to attend. However, I followed the competition online, including the awards ceremony that was streamed live. My observations were that the NICEE criteria for awards were generally in line with those of CIC, but NICEE seemed to emphasize commercial potential of inventions over solving problems in various fields. Nevertheless, my four NICEE competitors told me afterwards that they felt they were well prepared for the competition. In the end at NICEE, one of the four students (25%), Olivia Mullings, was a runner up for the Innovation in Electronics award for her Temp Safe invention that helped save babies or pets locked in a hot car. Here are photos from my four students who competed at NICEE:

Academy students Olivia, Shiven, Jasmine, and Alek prepare to compete in National Invention Convention and Entrepreneurship Expo (NICEE)



I strongly recommend Invention Convention as one of the best STEM competitions your students can enter. While I like team STEM competitions and have coached several of them, I think that the solo competition in Invention Convention is also very beneficial since it gives every student a chance. If you are a STEM teacher in Connecticut and use the materials that CIC provides, you should find it is not difficult to coach your students or even to set up your own local competition.

Teaching Persistence is Key to STEM Learning

Posted on

Students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs often tackle difficult projects, and if they have short-term expectations, they can become discouraged–instead, they need to learn persistence. Students in the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering tackled several STEM projects recently and showed outstanding persistence in achieving results.

The 7th graders learned the basics of model rocketry in May by first taking and passing a safety test, then by building and launching Estes Alpha rockets–I covered this in a previous post. After that, the students have designed, built and launched original model rockets of their own design. They were required to make all the parts of the model rocket themselves–they designed and 3D printed nose cones, they hammered out metal to make engine retainer clips, they made fins, and they put it all together and measured the stability of their rockets. At each stage, things went wrong, but the students fixed the problems and pressed on. In the end, all six crews successfully launched and tested their model rockets. Here are photos of each crew with their uniquely designed rockets:


The 8th graders also showed persistence in a few recent activities. First, one crew continued to refine the design of an electrically powered model airplane that was part of an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) STEM challenge we did this winter. The goal was to have the airplane fly around a pole that supplied electricity to the airplane’s motor. At first, none of the airplanes even moved when power was applied–there was too much drag on the wheels and too much weight for the thrust available. The students refined their designs and finally got a couple airplanes to almost fly up into ground effect. We talked about what we learned and the importance of persistence. One crew took this to heart and kept working on their airplane during their free time. Finally, a couple weeks ago they achieved absolute success as their airplane took off and flew steadily around the pole at about one to two feet of altitude–the whole academy cheered as they did this, as we all knew how hard they had worked. Here are photos:


Another set of students have worked for weeks on an originally designed trebuchet. They worked on this as their project during one day per week when I allow students a creative period in the makerspace to create or make whatever they wish within some broad guidelines. The students designed and built a trebuchet, but then repeatedly failed to launch a softball successfully. They kept persisting, however, and finally achieved success right before the end of school, launching a softball on a great arc over about one hundred feet of distance. Here are photos (note: one student, Alek, is missing from the photos since he was at the National Invention Convention that day):


Finally, the 8th graders have worked on the Codrone project where the coding of a small model aircraft (drone) took much patience and persistence, as described in an earlier post. For both the 7th and 8th grade classes in the academy, all the students have learned that big STEM projects require persistence to achieve results, but that the payoff in personal satisfaction makes it worth it, and they are connecting this persistence to other areas of their life.


Celebrating Success in STEM

Posted on Updated on

On June 14th, the 8th grade students and their families of the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering celebrated their accomplishments as the first class to complete two years in the academy. Taking time to celebrate any success is important, and this event was to mark two years’ worth of significant achievements in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). We opened the event, then ate dinner, then reviewed what the students had done over the past two years–here is a summary:

  • Students exceeded the requirements for 7th and 8th Grade Science, as described in the Newington Public Schools curriculum by integrating appropriate aerospace and engineering skills and concepts, as well as Next Generation Science Standards.
  • Students completed Honors Algebra and Honors Geometry (both are high school credits), and more impressively, the students far exceeded the target growth in mathematical reasoning—60% of students are expected to show growth and meet a target, but 91% of our students met or exceeded their target with many far exceeding the target by double digits–I attribute our integrated curriculum to this achievement, as students used and applied math throughout all the academy courses.
  • Additionally, over the past two years, students successfully completed:
    • 25 Labs
    • 25 Engineering design projects
    • 7 Field trips
    • 2 Major STEM competitions (CyberPatriot, Connecticut Invention Convention)
    • Many presentations and other projects
  • Students also heard from 21 professional and college student guest speakers.

After my presentation, students and parents came up and gave their testimony on how the academy had helped the students grow and develop into mature young men and women. These testimonies varied in reasons, but they all showed what a positive experience being in the academy had been. The students also surprised me with a gift, an Air Force team jersey with the number 17, symbolizing the class of 2017, and with all the students’ signatures on it. I could not have been more gratified. Finally, students had fun with a photo area with lots of props with which they could take humorous photos. Here are photos of the evening’s events:


Definition of terms:

Communist: A member of a Marxist political party, or any student who displeases Mr. Holmes for any reason.

Snowman: A human figure made of snow, or a student who is not a productive team member, but acts as if frozen in place.

Four of Spades: A playing card; also the repeated answer of an aircrew member suffering hypoxia in an altitude chamber, as seen on a training video.

Howdy: A standard greeting in Texas, and the appropriate way to warn fellow crew members on an airplane that flatulence has occurred.