Houston, We Have Lift Off

Serena Cho PhotoEight rockets flew into the air Monday night at a launch culminating a month of hard work.

“Oh my god — it’s going up so high!” called out Kyle Kirchoff, one of the students who have spent the past month building rockets in Michael Petrescu’s eighth-grade engineering class at Engineering & Science University Magnet School (ESUMS).

They launched the rockets Monday on the soccer field at the 7-12 school on the campus of the University of New Haven. Kirchoff and his classmates designed the rockets as part of Petrescu and innovation design instructor Brian MacWilliam’s efforts to teach them about motors and 3-D design.

Instead of lecturing them on the mechanics of motors or the principles of 3-D design, however, Petrescu and MacWilliam led their students to the school’s soccer field on Monday, where eighth graders launched their self-designed rockets into the air.

“These rockets weren’t made with a design kit,” MacWilliam. “Instead, students designed all three parts of the rocket –  the nose cone, the fuselage and the fins –  from scratch. Launching these rockets was the climax and a culmination of a month-long project intended to teach them about not motors, 3-D design and most importantly, the engineering procedure.”

According to Punarvasan Garani, a student in Petrescu and MacWilliam’s class, eighth graders designed the nosecones of the rockets on a computer program and built them with a 3D printer. Garani’s nose cone was modelled after a parabola, and it was “shocking but cool” to see the 3D printer transform his invention into something real and concrete, Grarani said.

Students decorated the fuselage and cut out the rocket fins from a thick cardboard. At first, the task of building a rocket seemed fun and simple, but there were many factors to learn and consider, such as balancing the weight of the fins, said Gary Moore, another student in the class.

Despite the difficulties, all eight groups successfully launched their rockets. Many of them soared past the nearby buildings, with students scrambling across the field to catch them.

In the next engineering class, students will study the recorded altitudes of each rocket and discuss possible modifications to make them go higher, MacWilliam said.

“The rocket we built in the past month is a model of what you need to go to Mars,” MacWilliam said. “Instead of the traditional approach to learning, where students just read textbooks, we give them a kinesthetic project. This way, we can engage both their minds and their hands.”

A Way of Learning: Hands-on and Minds-on

According to ESUMS principal Medria Blue-Ellis, the pedagogy of the school is centered around “hands-on and minds-on learning.” ESUMS teachers encourage students to incorporate abstract concepts into real-life practices by experimenting with what they’ve learned, Blue-Ellis said.

MacWilliam’s rocket-building project epitomizes the school’s pedagogical mission. Specifically, MacWilliam told the Independent that in his class, the hands-on approach allows the teachers to better engage the students.

“With hands-on learning, there’s a lot of student choice involved,” MacWilliam said. “For example, in this project, they have choice over the design and the decoration of the rockets. Because of that, they are so motivated and excited to come to class and bring their own ideas to life.”

Students in MacWilliam’s class agreed that being allowed to design and build the rockets made the project more exciting and memorable.

According to Anthony Franco, an eighth grader from New Haven, many students were drawn in to the project because the building and decorating process was “so fun, like an art class.”

Ava Kish, another student in the class, added that the hands-on approach will help her remember what she learned about rockets and the experimental process, whereas “a boring lecture” would have her “forget the details immediately.”

Robert Sweet, a senior in ESUMS who helped MacWilliams facilitate the rocket launch, also emphasized that hands-on learning helps students build strong relationships with their teachers. While it is difficult for students to form any meaningful relationships during a lecture, working in a lab or a workshop allows them to interact individually with their peers and teachers, Sweet said.

“Because you are not just following the instructions, but instead, building things with your teachers, you are not talked down to,” Sweet explained. “You interact with them one-on-one and get to know them really well. I mean, the reason why I helped [Mr.MacWilliam] with his middle school rocket launch is because he was my physics teacher last year and we worked on a bunch of projects together.”

Despite the school’s emphasis on building and experimenting, however, Blue-Ellis noted that students are not sacrificing the time they could spend learning abstract concepts and theories.

“It’s called ‘hands-on and minds-on’ because the theory isn’t absent,” Blue-Ellis explained. “What the kids design and build here are based and grounded in scientific concepts. With both the theory and the application, we try to prepare our students for collegiate-level engineering classes.”

Engineering and Science – Specialization at an Early Age?

Just like the eighth graders in MacWilliam’s class, students at ESUMS are constantly designing, building, experimenting and redesigning. In fact, every student at ESUMS takes an engineering class every day.

According to Blue-Ellis, the school’s unique focus on science and engineering has brought back “stellar results.” ESUMS has been selected as one of the “Schools of Distinction” by Magnet Schools of America for the past five years. Students receive good grades on AP exams, and seniors matriculate into prestigious colleges including MIT, Yale, Vanderbilt and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Blue-Ellis said.

MacWilliam also noted that putting so much focus on STEM fields sometimes leads to sacrificing time that could be dedicated to other subjects.

“Obviously, a school can’t have everything,” MacWilliam explained. “Because we focus heavily on science and engineering, we don’t offer as much foreign language, arts, or music classes as other high schools do.”

Still, Blue-Ellis said that students can choose to take additional classes at University of New Haven, Gateway Community College or Yale University. For example, while the school offers French and Arabic, if the student wants to take Farsi, the administrators can help arrange classes for him, Blue-Ellis added.

Blue-Ellis also emphasized the importance of learning science and engineering, regardless of the field the student chooses to pursue.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of talk about the jobs of future being in STEM fields, but it’s not all about that,” Blue-Ellis said. “Science and engineering is about thinking creatively and critically to solve problems and improve the quality of our lives. Our students don’t necessarily become engineers; some go into film, medicine, computer science, political science and many more. Still, the skills we teach at this school are necessary and helpful for every field they pursue.” 

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posted by: RichTherrn on May 14, 2018  8:50pm

ESUMS school is an example of the STEM learning explosion happening to lift ALL students to greater heights. When we first proposed the school in 2007, as a lottery (non merit) based magnet school starting in 6th grade (not high school), we were met with skepticism. 11 years later, this class, and many others proves that the model works. Give them extra STEM/Engineering, focus on problem solving, and all kids can benefit. Thanks to all the great educators at this school!
-Richard Therrien
-NHPS Science Supervisor

posted by: Dean Moriarty on May 14, 2018  11:21pm

Absolutely fascinating and exactly what we need to be teaching our future generation.  Kudos to this program.  I sadly regret that there wasn’t such a direction as this when I was in junior high (yes, I’m that old) and a high school student.  Most likely would have been life changing.

Ms Cho, could you elaborate on what the acronym STEMS is?  I can guess at it, but I’d like to know for sure.

Great article.