This spring, we decided not to do a full-scale Spring STEM Day Competition, which we had tried for the first time in June 2010. The amount of work that goes into that one day is so much that we made the choice to go back to an annual day of events held each November instead of making it semi-annual like we tried last year.
Still, we wished to keep the spirit of STEM alive as the year wore on. So we planned a couple of events that allowed for inter-class competition, spread apart over several months this spring, lasting only 1-1.5 hours each. Events that integrate engineering, math, science, and/or technology (i.e. STEM) into a project, with a time-frame that allows for quick construction and testing. Events that create a sustained sense of STEM as something that’s a part of students’ courses and not just a day of fun apart from those courses. And, of course, a single event at a time, which is easier to plan and manage than a full day.
The first spring event, back in March, was Catapult Battleship – The Battle of the Four Oceans.
This past Friday, we held the second spring STEM event, a paper rocket contest! Students in teams of two were given two sheets of 8.5″x11″ paper, two index cards, and unlimited masking tape with which to construct their rockets. They also were allowed to use scissors, a page with a variety of fin designs, and a wooden dowel the same diameter as the launching apparatus (which their rockets would need to fit on). Full rules are here. Below you can see one paper rocket:
After ten minutes gathering everyone and explaining the rules, and twenty minutes of rocket building, we were ready to go outside and launch! [By coincidence, our school’s Aerospace Engineering students had launched their fuel-powered rockets earlier that same day.] We planned to launch every rocket against every other rocket, to determine the winner (which rocket goes farther) in every paired contest, then add up the total wins to find the overall champion. Due to time constraints, we were not able to do every possible pair; but we did make sure each rocket got an equal number of launches, and no two rockets faced each other twice.
The launcher we used, pictured above, is able to launch two rockets simultaneously with a burst of pressurized air. The pressurized air is provided by an air compressor, pictured below. The launching apparatus was purchased in part thanks to a grant from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. [An alternative for those looking to create a similar event on the cheap: create a launcher from PVC pipe and rubber hosing, hook this to a two-liter soda bottle, and have each student stomp hard on the bottle to launch the rocket. Your school’s faculty will be happy to donate used two-liter bottles (a different time, we got three times as many bottles as needed when we advertised to the school’s staff that we needed bottles for an engineering/STEM project).]
As always for our STEM Days and Events, the paper rocket competition was much fun for students (and certainly for me too). It was a chance to do something outside the norm, to build something hands-on, to go outdoors on a beautiful (though hot) sunny day. Students from four of the engineering classes got to compete (two sections of Principles of Engineering and two of Introduction to Engineering Design), which helped to build a sense of engineering identity, since some of the students knew each other outside of PLTW but did not know their classmates in other sections as fellow engineers.
Just as important as the fun and team-building aspects, it helped students learn about STEM. Everyone learned more about putting the engineering design process into practice: some were encountering it for the first time; others wrote a mini-report about the contest after the fact, focusing on steps in the design process. Many of the students did some research — some teacher-directed, others self-spurred — into the principles of flight, the aerodynamics of rockets, and the space shuttle.
As final exams are this week, hopefully this event will leave students thinking about STEM over the summer!