Integrating STEM Lessons

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:


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Building Teamwork Is First Step for New STEM Students

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:


Using Inquiry to Learn Astronomy

8th grade students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering have been studying astronomy, especially the Solar System, over the past month. This is the focus of the Earth Science unit in the 8th Grade Science curriculum. The main ideas that students have been learning involve the motions of the Earth and Moon in relation to each other and the Sun. Topics include the Moon’s phases, the Earth’s seasons, solar and lunar eclipses, and oceanic tides on Earth. I have taught these topics in the past, and while I found them relatively simple as a teacher, I learned that most students find them confusing and difficult to learn. Ms. Garavel and I decided to plan the unit differently this time–instead of presenting the topics in text or visual demonstrations, we used an inquiry approach from the start. To begin with, I had the students start two one-month lab experiments: one was to observe the Sun for sunspots each day to see if the Sun showed rotation, and the other lab was to observe the Moon each day to see how its phases and position in the sky changed.

To do the sunspot lab, the students made a simple paper screen onto which they could project the Sun’s image using our Orion Observer 60mm refractor telescopes–the students also had to pass a safety quiz on telescope use, emphasizing that they never look directly at the Sun, before the lab started. The lab was interesting, as we saw one sunspot on the first day near the edge of the Sun, then it disappeared the next day as it seemed to rotate out of view. We then entered a three-week spell where the Sun was clean of any spots. We learned that NASA confirmed that the Sun had just gone through an eleven-year low for number of sunspots. However, as the lab ended, we went out one day last week and saw five sunspots, so we are extending it to see how they change. All of this generated a lot of interest and discussion, so I consider the lab a success. Here are photos of the students making observations, and a photo of one of the recent images showing several sunspots:

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The Moon observation lab was also interesting, as I learned at the beginning that most students had little idea how the Moon moved through the sky or progressed through its phases. By the end of the lab, the students had seen a complete lunar cycle, plus we did several classroom activities where each crew (student group) had to act out where the Sun, Earth, and Moon were in position relative to one another using models or their bodies as models. These short skits allowed students to act out the motions in front of one another, then critique them if there were any errors–and they had fun acting and moving around. We did similar skits and discussions to understand eclipses and tides. As the students began each topic, I also assigned the reading of online articles by NASA and NOAA for homework to provide more background and information about each topic.

In addition to these two labs, we also discussed how the stars and planets progress through the Earth’s sky. We had two observation nights where students came back to school after dark and took out the telescopes to observe the night sky. We discussed the motions and acted out the way the stars of the zodiac change over the year by having a circle of twelve students (one for each zodiac constellation) surrounding a central student (the Sun) with an orbiting student (the Earth). Finally, I took the Starry Night software that came with our Orion telescopes and loaded it on our STEMPilot Edustation flight simulators, turning them into sky simulators. The software allows the students to bring up any date and time on any location on Earth, or to move off the Earth, and to see how the sky appears. You can also speed up the movement to see how the Moon, planets, stars, etc. move over the course of days and weeks in the night sky. All of these activities were done in an inquiry manner where students began by hypothesizing what they expected to see, observing what actually happened, then analyzing where they were correct or incorrect and drawing conclusions. Here are photos of the students using Starry Night software:


All of this inquiry activity ended with two major assessments. First the students took a unit test, then they took the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) in Science. Their performance on the unit test and their feedback on the CMT (scores come out later) both showed they had a good understanding of the astronomy topics we had studied. We will continue to do more astronomy through the end of the school year, and Ms. Garavel and I plan to make the students even more proficient as amateur astronomers.

Learning by Teaching – Academy Students Teach Flying

Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering hosted teachers from the four grade level teams in our school, John Wallace Middle School, over the past week. But the students did not just welcome the teachers–they also taught them to fly in our STEMPilot flight simulators. Ms. Garavel had her 7th grade academy students plan a lesson for the teachers they taught from the 5th and 7th grade teams. The students wrote lesson plans and even assigned homework! My 8th grade students also planned lessons and showed the 6th and 8th grade teams how to fly a Cessna 172, then more advanced maneuvers on a Boeing 747 and a F/A-18 fighter aircraft. The teachers also got tours of our academy and saw how the students learn all aspects of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) in an integrated approach. Giving students this opportunity to be teachers definitely challenged them and helped them become better learners.

Here are photos of the 7th grade academy students teaching the 5th grade and 7th grade teachers and our principal, Mr. Milardo, to fly:



Here are photos of the 8th graders teaching the 6th grade and 8th grade teachers to fly:


What is a STEM Academy? It’s an Integrated Approach to Learning–and Busy!

The Academy of Aerospace and Engineering at John Wallace Middle School in Newington, Connecticut is a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) academy – but what does that mean? There are different ways that question can be answered, depending on how the academy is set up. For me, in setting up this academy, it means that students have an integrated learning experience throughout their classes in the academy so that regardless of the class title, e.g., “Geometry” or “8th Grade Science,” the students are using and referring to science, technology, engineering, and math in every class. More specifically, whatever we discuss in one class, we try to use as a reference in the other classes. Not everything carries over every day, but the main topics do. We also emphasize how these subjects integrate more broadly with society and periodically discuss the ramifications of various STEM initiatives on society. For example, the 8th graders are about to learn about genetics and heredity, and we had a preliminary discussion about some ethical considerations of genetic engineering.

Integration of the various subjects also means we have a lot going on in our classes, and every day is different. In the last week of classes before winter break, we were especially busy. The 7th graders were finishing up an engineering project to design and test a propeller on a rubber band powered model airplane. The 8th graders all worked on improving the designs of their electrically powered model airplanes, a project developed by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). This project has been very challenging. When the first crews (groups of 4 students) designed and tested their airplanes, they didn’t even move. Now most crews have airplanes that are on the verge of taking off as they speed along the ground. Both projects have required students to use math and science as the basis of their designs, and good engineering practices to build and refine their designs. On top of all this, we hosted all of the 6th grade science classes in our school in a series of orientation visits, as these students will have the opportunity to apply to the academy in a couple months. On these visits, the 7th and 8th grade academy students gave a complete tour of the academy facility, then the 7th graders showed the 6th graders how to fly our STEMPilot flight simulators. We also did service projects in spirit with the holidays. The 8th graders collected items for the John Wallace Middle School Wish Club, and the 7th graders did a variety of collections and fundraisers for the Wish Club. It was a very busy week exemplifying an integrated approach to STEM.

Here are photos of the 8th grade crews with their electrically powered model airplanes:

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Here are photos of the 6th grade orientation visits:

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Here are some photos of the 7th graders working on their service projects:

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