Institute for Science and Mathematics Education

In a fifth-grade classroom in south Seattle this May, pairs of students pulled vibrant cardboard cubes from a stack and presented them to four panelists.

The boxes were covered with neon duct tape and filled with tubes, popsicle sticks, batteries and matchboxes. While these materials might sound like the ingredients for a simple fifth-grade craft project, there were big ideas in those popsicle sticks.

The students had worked in pairs to build model CubeSats, small cubic satellites that are revolutionizing space exploration and making space investigation more accessible to amateur researchers.

As the culmination of this unit, the students presented mock-National Science Foundation proposals to a panel that included two aerospace engineers (or “rocket scientists,” as the teacher, Mrs. Jones, put it). In their presentations, the students explained the purpose they had selected for their CubeSats, which ranged from weather detection to surveying the surface of the moon to podcast transmission.

The students described their designs and the thought that went into them. “What does the little straw represent?” one of the panelists asked. “Protection for wiring,” said the student earnestly.

A Longstanding Partnership

This class is part of a culturally diverse elementary school that has worked with the UW Institute for Science + Math Education for over a decade. This lesson on CubeSats is part of the most recent partnership, which unites the Institute, Seattle Public Schools, and the Teaching Channel—with funding and participation from The Boeing Company. This work was also supported by the efforts of the Institute as part of the Research + Practice Collaboratory.

In this project, Boeing engineers worked with Mrs. Jones and other teachers in Seattle and Houston to develop innovative STEM curriculum units based on real-world projects, with the support of Institute staff and teachers with STEM education expertise. The Teaching Channel filmed many of these lessons, including Mrs. Jones’ class on testing CubeSat models; these videos will be available in autumn 2015.

“I’ve learned so much as a teacher” from working with these partners, Mrs. Jones says, highlighting how excited she was to talk about authentic engineering practices with the engineers. Additionally, she says, “It’s amazing to get (McGowan’s) perspective on things. She is so well versed in science education and engineering education.”

Authentic Experiences

This new curriculum was designed to give students real-world science and engineering experiences. “A lot of engineering curriculum is building a popsicle stick bridge” or other activities that lack real-world applications, says UW Graduate Researcher Veronica McGowan. This current partnership is “about engaging kids in authentic engineering design tasks,” she says. The development and testing of CubeSats is a perfect focus to achieve this goal.

Over the course of the year, Mrs. Jones’ students also worked with architects on design challenges, built and adapted go-carts to study force and motion, and visited a wastewater treatment plant and reconstructed wetland as they studied public health. Mrs. Jones and McGowan are also working to design tools to support future teachers who take on this work.

McGowan is conducting an in-depth case study of this class for her dissertation, asking how to best support teachers and students in this sort of applied engineering learning and how these experiences influence classroom equity. She and Mrs. Jones collaborate closely on creating new curriculum, developing the necessary teaching techniques to support students in this more ambitious work and focusing the research.

“Mrs. Jones lets me know what research questions are relevant and useful to real-world classroom learning,” says McGowan. “My research can provide insight into things that aren’t always visible in the rush of the classroom – like if group dynamics are off or if students aren’t using systematic design techniques to improve their designs. Mrs. Jones and I then work together to find ways to improve learning and engagement with engineering practices.” These insights are also shared through teacher learning resources developed by the Institute staff like this one, on how to productively reframe failure for students during engineering design.

Organized Chaos

In their presentations to the engineers, students described their testing process, where they used weights and shaking to test their models’ space-readiness. Their tests gave the unit an “organized chaos,” showing that there is a systematic but not fully predictable process to engineering, in contrast to the undisciplined guesswork students sometimes use in elementary engineering lessons.

Students have to explain how their designs address issues that came up in testing. One pair admitted that their model failed initial tests, as it lacked structural strength and its power source (a battery) fell off. “What did you do when the battery fell off when you tested it?” asked one of the panelists. “We taped it back on, but with more tape,” then added diagonal popsicle sticks as interior structural supports, the student replied. Failing early and often as they innovate new solutions in order to refine their designs is a central aspect of the engineering process they are learning.

Prioritizing for Purpose

As students presented their model CubeSats, they also displayed posters. Under catchy titles, like “Mars is out of this world! Literally!!” spreadsheets showed their equipment lists, with mass, cost, and the power used and supplied in Watts. By adding features to their CubeSats, the students needed to make design decisions about weight, costs and benefits, a real-world task for many engineers—to develop solutions within constraints.

But they were also learning how to argue for doing more ambitious work. “We went over the limit of how much the CubeSat should cost, but for a good reason,” say two girls, citing their CubeSat’s proposed purpose of mapping the surface of Mars.

Students and Experts

The panel brought two female aeronautical engineers to the classroom, one who worked at Boeing and one who had previously been with Boeing. After the student presentations, the engineers related the students’ work to their own.

“What was the hardest part of designing your satellite?” one asked the class. Weight, students said. Managing cost. Attaching parts so they did not fall out. “Real satellites have some of these issues,” the engineer said. “Holding on to the propellant tanks in a real satellite is a challenge.”

The instructional approach intentionally positions students as developing experts. When one of the engineers brought up the use of solar cells on CubeSats, Mrs. Jones asked students, “Where have you already seen solar cells?” tying the conversation to the students’ existing knowledge.

Students were also able to show their knowledge through thoughtful questions for the engineers. At the beginning of class, Mrs. Jones asked students, “What do you still wonder about CubeSats?” Later, when the engineers read and responded to their questions, the ever-fidgety fifth-graders were focused.

Students asked: “Are there CubeSats on every planet in our solar system?” (Not yet.) “How long will a CubeSat stay up there?” (It depends where you put it.) “How long does it take a satellite to get to space?” (Just 15 minutes.) “How do satellites get fuel when they are in orbit?” (They don’t.) Being able to learn about a new STEM field from experts who work in the field is a powerful learning opportunity. It is an important equity strategy to make professional STEM expertise available to students who are not likely to encounter it otherwise.

The curriculum unit seemed to have a profound influence on some of the students—to help them imagine different possible futures they might want to explore. One girl raised her hand. “Are there jobs in space for people under 13?” she asked. The engineers explained that volunteer opportunities and summer programs are available with organizations like NASA and the Museum of Flight when students get a bit older.

“How many of you have been inspired to do engineering and architecture (after this unit)?” Mrs. Jones asked. Hands shot up.

Story contributed by Abby Rhinehart and Philip Bell, Institute for Science + Math Education.


Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications