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'It’s Nothing Like October Sky!': Spurring 9th and 10th Graders to Think Like Engineers via Rockets Custom-Designed for Maximum Altitude

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

October 19, 2019

Conference Session

Energy & Technology in Pre-College Engineering Education

Tagged Division

Pre-College Engineering Education

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Paper Authors


Matthew J. Traum Engineer Inc. Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Matthew J. Traum is founding CEO at Engineer Inc., a Florida-based STEM education social enterprise start-up. Traum invented @HOLM™ lab kits to enable students in on-line courses to build and run engineering experiments remotely at home.

Before founding Engineer Inc., Dr. Traum was a well-known higher education administrator, fund raiser, educator, and researcher with co-authorship of 12 peer-reviewed research journal articles, 18 refereed research conference articles, and 20 refereed pedagogical conference articles. As a PI or Co-PI, Traum has attracted over $841 K in funding for research, education, and entrepreneurial ventures from multiple sources including NSF, NASA, ASHRAE, AIAA, Sigma Xi, the Texas State Energy Conservation Office, and several industry sponsors including Toshiba and Oshkosh.

Most recently as Associate Professor and Director of Engineering Programs at Philadelphia University, Dr. Traum led the Mechanical Engineering Program through a successful ABET interim visit resulting in no deficiencies, weaknesses, or concerns.

Previously, Dr. Traum was an assistant professor at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), one of the top-ten undergraduate-serving engineering universities in the U.S. Dr. Traum coordinated MSOE's first crowd-funded senior design project. He also co-founded with students EASENET, a start-up renewable energy company to commercialize waste-to-energy biomass processors.

Dr. Traum began his academic career as a founding faculty member in the Mechanical & Energy Engineering Department at the University of North Texas - Denton where he established a successful, externally-funded researcher incubator that trained undergraduates to perform experimental research and encouraged matriculation to graduate school.

Traum received a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he held a research assistantship at MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. At MIT he invented a new nano-enabled garment to provide simultaneous ballistic and thermal protection to infantry soldiers. Dr. Traum also holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT with a focus on cryogenics and two bachelor’s degrees from the University of California, Irvine: one in mechanical engineering and the second in aerospace engineering. In addition, he attended the University of Bristol, UK as a non-matriculating visiting scholar where he completed an M.Eng thesis in the Department of Aerospace Engineering on low-speed rotorcraft control.

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Sharon Liz Karackattu Oak Hall School

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Sharon L. Karackattu earned a B.S. in Interdisciplinary Studies: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the University of Florida in 2000 and completed a Ph.D. in Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2006. She served as a postdoctoral associate in MIT’s Biological Engineering Division before spending two years as a Research Coordinator for Student Development at University of North Texas. She is currently a high school science instructor specializing in chemistry and the life sciences. She has taught college-level courses in the biosciences and maintains an interest in studying students pursuing the STEM fields.

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K-12 STEM education literature reveals that conventional and traditional math, science, and computer programming classes often fail to effectively “do the ‘E’ in STEM”. New grade-level-appropriate curricula are required to address this omission. This paper presents and evaluates a model-rocket-based curriculum implemented in a stand-alone STEM course required for all 9th and 10th graders at a private high school. The project is unique because it melds the following five attributes into an open-ended, hands-on, high-school-level engineering design-and-build project: 1) Design-Build-Test pedagogy; 2) the engineering design process; 3) comprehensive technical coverage of rocket systems; 4) the seven axes of engineering practice; and 5) enabling computer simulations and micro-sensor technology for engineering design and analysis. This novel curriculum is evaluated using an indirect post-activity survey that probes students’ attitudes about STEM fields and self-perceived skills and abilities.

For the project, all students were given identical Estes LoadStar II model kits, commercially available in Educator Bulk Packs. The students’ challenge, framed as a class competition, was to modify the rocket’s design to maximize flight altitude with an Estes C6-5 motor. The instructor first guided students through creating functional digital renderings of the unmodified rocket kit using Rocket Simulator from Apogee Components. Virtual launches of simulated rockets corroborated by data from real launches established an altitude baseline. Students then brainstormed and explored a variety of design modifications using the modeling software to evaluate potential rocket altitude impacts of each change. With inexpensive hand tools available in the STEM classroom, students modified their rocket kits to match the designs they developed in the software. Student-designed and -built rockets were then launched. Flight altitudes were measured directly using an onboard JollyLogic AltimeterThree barometric altimeter carried aloft in the rocket payload section. In every class section, student-customized rockets outperformed the unmodified baseline vehicle.

At the class’s conclusion, 79 students (out of 107 enrolled) completed a computerized anonymous indirect survey to self-assess their attitudes about the course specifically and engineering in general as a result of the rocket project. Results were lackluster compared to expectations based on similar s novel classroom lesson pedagogical studies previously conducted. Only 54.4% of students reported increased interest in the class over the semester. 62.0% reported improved understanding of the rocket design process. 57.0% reported being able to see interconnections between science, math, engineering, and technology as a result of the course. Despite these disappointing results, anecdotal observation suggested student participants were engaging in effective engineering thinking throughout the project. Reasons explaining middling survey results and discussion of the project’s next steps to improve student responses are described.

Traum, M. J., & Karackattu, S. L. (2019, June), 'It’s Nothing Like October Sky!': Spurring 9th and 10th Graders to Think Like Engineers via Rockets Custom-Designed for Maximum Altitude Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--31918

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