Lessons Learned on Invention Convention

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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

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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

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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.

Integrated STEM Project: Designing Sundials

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The 8th grade students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering have just completed an integrated STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) project where each crew (student groups of four to five students) designed a sundial, built a model of it, tested it, and presented it to Mr. Dias, our current Assistant Principal and next year’s Principal at John Wallace Middle School. The requirement given to the students was to design a sundial with an aerospace theme that could be built on the school grounds outside the academy. Mr. Dias saw all the designs presented, then he chose what he believed was the best design that would complement our school. The winning design, by Crew 4, uses a person as the gnomon (the part of the sundial that casts the shadow) and directs the person to stand on different places on the sundial, depending on the time of year, in order to accurately depict the time year-round.

So what makes this an “integrated project?” Integration means applying what is learned in one class to a problem in another class, or connecting concepts across two or more classes. We do this type of learning every day in the academy, and this project was especially integrated. The 8th graders have learned about the Solar System and how the Sun, Moon and planets move across the sky from an Earth observer’s point of view–they applied this knowledge to the sundial since the Sun changes its position in the sky not only hour to hour, but also day to day. The students used astronomy software to plot the Sun’s position every hour from 6:00AM to 6:00PM on both the summer and winter solstices and on the spring and fall equinoxes. They used this information to design the hour lines on their sundials. Drawing these lines required knowledge of circles, which is the unit in geometry we are studying–so students applied their knowledge of central angles and angular motion to design the sundial’s face with its hour lines. Half of the students are also studying air navigation, including latitude and longitude, so they applied that knowledge to the problem of designing the gnomon whose angle depends on latitude. Finally, the students applied what they have learned the past two years in the academy about the engineering design process and presentation skills. All of these connections made this a highly integrated project.

Here are photos of each crew with models of their sundials:

Crew 1’s design would be on a pillar and is based on the academy logo with the gear as the sundial’s base and the red arrow as  the gnomon.
Crew 2’s design would be on a pillar and has an aerospace theme with celestial objects marking each hour.
Crew 3’s design uses the current academy sign, shaped like an aircraft tail, as the gnomon, then rocks in the ground would mark the hour lines.
WINNING DESIGN – Crew 4’s design would be laid out in the ground with pavers and requires a person to stand as gnomon on the appropriate month to cast a shadow and give the time.
Crew 5’s design is a large cement slab sundial in the ground with a gnomon shaped like an aircraft wing.
Crew 6’s design would be on a pillar and has interchangeable disks for each season  so that the sundial is accurate year round.

Academy Students Win Top Awards at Connecticut Invention Convention

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On Saturday, April 29, 2017, Ms. Garavel and I cheered on seven Academy of Aerospace and Engineering students at the state-level Connecticut Invention Convention (CIC) at UCONN – Storrs in Gampel Pavilion. These seven students were the winners at the Central Regional CIC event on April 8th – four eighth graders, and three seventh graders. Inventors at CIC could win two types of awards: judges gave Recognized Inventor Awards to the best two inventors in every circle of eight or nine inventors, and various sponsors also gave awards. Two of our eighth graders and two of our seventh graders earned two or more awards today, and one eighth grader, Olivia Mullings, got four awards, including the top award at the very end – and all four of these students were selected to compete in the national competition in June — here are the details:

7th grade Academy winners:
Jasmine BarberSno Away (rolling snow shovel that avoids back strain) – Recognized Inventor Award and Connecticut Science and Engineering Fair Award.
Shiven PatelStop, Drop, and Spot (beacon to help find fire extinguisher in smokey room) – Recognized Inventor Award and Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering Award.

8th grade Academy winners:
Alek JorgeSmart Helm (fireman’s helmet with sensors and transmitter to alert incident commander if fireman is hurt or down) – Recognized Inventor Award, Connecticut Fire Marshals Fire Safety Award, and Angel Investors Forum/Connecticut Venture Group Young Entrepreneur Award (this award connects Alek with potential investors in his invention).
Olivia MullingsTemp Safe (alarm system if baby or pet is left in hot car) – Frank J. Link Family Award for Innovation in Technology Award, Boehringer Ingelheim Cares Foundation Life Sciences Award, United Technologies Corporation Moving the World Forward Award, and the McCormick, Paulding, and Huber Patent Award (this award was given last and highlighted as the top award which provides about $10,000 in legal services for a patent search and application).

Here are photos of the Academy students as they prepared to be judged:


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Here are photos from the awards ceremony and celebration afterwards:

Here are the statistics for this competition to put it all in perspective:

  • 17,000 students across Connecticut competed in local CIC competitions this year — we had 56 competitors at our local event in March (50 students from the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering, and 6 from the STEM clubs in JWMS and MKMS) – so we made up about 0.3% of all Connecticut competitors.
  • The top 15% of inventors from the local competitions competed in one of five regional competitions this year — we had 9 competitors go the Central Regional CIC in early April (four 8th graders and four 7th graders from the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering, and one student from JWMS STEM club). Volunteers from GKN Aerospace and PCX Aerostructures judged the inventors and picked the winners who advanced to regionals from our local CIC.
  • The top 40% of inventors from the regional events, 660 students total from 87 Connecticut school districts, went to the state CIC — we had 7 competitors (all four 8th graders, and three of the four 7th graders from the regional event) – so we advanced at more than double the average rate (100% of 8th graders advanced, and 75% of 7th graders advanced) and we made up about 1% of the competitors at the state event.
  • There were about 300 total awards given at the state CIC, so about one award for every two students – so it would have been reasonable for us to get about three awards, yet we got eleven awards, far above the average, including the top Angel Investor Award and the Patent Award.

I give all these statistics to show that today’s CIC results validated the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering as a strong STEM program where students are learning the concepts and skills sought by universities and industry. I recommend this program highly to any elementary or middle school STEM teacher for your students.

All four students will also be competing in the National Invention Convention and Entrepreneurship Expo on June 1-3, 2017 in Alexandria, Virginia. 

Using Simple Models for Complex STEM Projects

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The 8th graders at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering have been working on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) project to design and build a prototype for a monumental sundial that we can display outside our facility. Each crew (student group of 4 to 5 students) is working on its own design, then all the crews will pitch their ideas to the administration. The winning design will be built outside as a class gift, once approved by school authorities.

Sundials can be made in many forms. The more accurate and all encompassing the design, the more complex the sundial becomes. Students have been researching and brainstorming ideas, and they have had many questions. To help them visualize how a sundial works, Ms. Garavel led the class in a project to build a simple, handheld paper sundial that we took outside and tested. First the students tried using the sundial horizontally, the way it is intended to be used. Then I challenged the students to put it on a vertical wall to see if the design could be altered to work there–and not just one vertical wall, but one facing south and one facing east. The students took up the challenge and quickly came up with logical changes that would make the sundial work in each situation.

Afterwards, we discussed this exercise as a class. The students understood how using a simple model like this could help in the early stage of any complex engineering project to give the designer a clear idea how something worked. They connected this exercise with something we had done earlier in the year when we copied the process the Wright Brothers had used by making simple airfoils that we tested in a wind tunnel before we made a more complex electric motor powered model airplane. We even discussed how this process could be useful outside of engineering, such as in a business that tests a product in a small focus group before committing a large amount of resources to produce it.

Here are photos of the students first making the paper sundials, then using them outside:


Host an Invention Convention & Promote STEM

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On March 16, 2017, the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering hosted the Newington Invention Convention for all 50 academy students, plus six other students from the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) Clubs at both John Wallace Middle School and Martin Kellogg Middle School in Newington. This competition was the local event leading up to the state-level Connecticut Invention Convention, a nationally recognized STEM competition that challenges elementary and middle school students to design, build, and present an original invention. Students began working after winter break on their inventions, following an engineering design process to research, brainstorm, design, build and test inventions that solved problems in their lives. The students also had to build a presentation board and practice explaining their invention. At the competition, each student inventor was interviewed by a pair of judges who scored each invention using a rubric developed by Connecticut Invention Convention. In the end, the judges picked the top 15% (9 total students) who now get to compete at the Central Regional Invention Convention on April 8, 2017 at Goodwin College in East Hartford, along with hundreds of other local winners from our part of the state. The winners from the regional competitions will get to compete at the state-level event on April 29, 2017 at UCONN’s Gampel Pavilion. The winners of the Newington Invention Convention and the names of their inventions were as follows:

6th grade / STEM Club
Zachary White – “Insta Crack Cam”

7th grade/Academy
Jasmine Barber – “Sno-Away”
Shiven Patel – “Stop, Drop, and Spot”
Vidhisha Thakkar – “Baby Safe”
Emmanuel Thomas – “Charger Clip”

8th grade/Academy
Brandon Fiore – “Thermo Plate”
Tyler Frohock – “White Out Vest”
Alek Jorge – “Smart Helm”
Olivia Mullings – “Temp Safe”

Getting judges for a competition like this one can be difficult, as it is recommended not to use teachers or parents so that there is no perception of any favoritism toward one student or another. Fortunately for us, we have built a great partnership with two outstanding aerospace firms in our community, GKN Aerospace and PCX Aerostructures, both of whom provided judges for the Newington Invention Convention. GKN judges were Bruce Fiedorowicz, Tiedah Evans, Reggie Gay, Ewelina Maselek, and Jon Ford. PCX judges were Chris Aldrich, Gerry Zimmerman, Louisa Triggs, and Nate Knowles. They worked in pairs, and each pair judged around 15 student inventors in about one hour’s time. Finally, Bruce Fiedorowicz and Chris Aldrich helped pass out awards and said a few words at our closing ceremony. We congratulate all the inventors at this event!


Photos of 8th grade inventors from the Academy:

Photos of 7th grade inventors from the Academy:

Photos of STEM Club inventors:

Photos of the competition and closing ceremony:

NOTE: Most photos were taken by Kate Norton of Newington Public Schools (thank you!).