S.T.E.A.M. programs are taking off in Aspen | AspenTimes.com

S.T.E.A.M. programs are taking off in Aspen

The new aeronautics classroom at the Aspen Middle School not only has an actual full-motion flight simulator, it also has four computer flight simulators for students to access. Canaan Case pilots a flight over Key West, Florida, as his co-pilot, Charlie Guilander, standing, gives flight tips. Both are eight-graders at the middle school.
Michael McLaughlin/The Aspen Times |

It was “Pi Day” on March 14, and Aspen Middle School celebrated the event as a tie-in to showcase the new remodel of four classrooms for S.T.E.A.M. programs at the school.

S.T.E.A.M. stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, and comes from a program that started in the 1980s after it was discovered that America had engineers retiring at a rate faster than they were being replaced. The program was intended to put more of an educational emphasis into those areas, lead to higher test scores and create engineers.

The art aspect wasn’t originally part of the idea, but educators saw a lack of artistic qualities from the original program and added art to balance the equation.

The Aspen School District has embraced this way of thinking, and has worked toward upgrading its S.T.E.A.M. programs. The recent remodel at the middle school now houses several new classrooms designed for S.T.E.A.M. learning.

The school had an open house on “Pi Day,” which is celebrated on March 14 around the world. Pi, or the Greek letter “π,” is the symbol used in mathematics to represent the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, which is approximately 3.14.

March 14 is also Albert Einstein’s birthday.

The open house allowed the community to see the newly remodeled S.T.E.A.M. wing in the lower level of the middle school.

“It’s also a great way to show the people who have donated money to the Aspen Education Foundation just where their money is going,” said Melissa Long, the executive director of the foundation. “Today we’re showcasing some of the innovative curriculum and programs that, through the generosity of donations to the Aspen Education Foundation, we’re able to support.”

The foundation raised $635,000 during the 2012-13 school year. Dr. John Maloy, the superintendent of schools for the Aspen School District, allocated those funds.

“This year, we’re hoping to surpass that total,” Long said. “Our goal is to continue supporting these types of programs.”

The remodeled wing at the middle school was used exclusively for storage, but it now houses four new classrooms — a band room that’s almost complete, the aeronautics room, robotics room and an all-purpose art room.

There’s also still an area for storage and the facility maintenance offices.

The robotics room could fool someone into thinking it’s an area for younger kids with all the Lego-connector pieces in the room, but the Lego-robotics program has been getting stronger every year in the valley, especially in the Aspen School District.

The all-purpose art room used to be a windowless storage area, but it’s been transformed into a spacious work area for many forms of art with a bank of new windows for plenty of natural light.

The new aerospace room is one of the centerpieces within the S.T.E.A.M. programs now being offered within the district. With a strong emphasis on higher math and complex scientific concepts, the district decided to use aeronautics as a path for students to apply this new type of education.

“We’re getting kids to understand earth science and the physics of flight,” said Greg Roark, the director of aeronautics within the district.

“Our program is about common core tie-ins in applied math and science, as well as college and career readiness,” he said.

The classroom houses a new Redbird FMX full-motion flight simulator that uses integrated 3-D graphics, where the video signal from the flight display can be sent to several large high-definition monitors in the classroom.

There are also four smaller flight-simulator stations set up in the room that students also can access.

The aeronautics program has been integrated throughout the elementary, middle and high schools.

First- and second-graders learn about lift, thrust, weight and drag in fun ways, even as simple as making paper airplanes. In third- and fourth-grade, students learn to build models of planes with an emphasis on the anatomy and physiology of aircraft.

The middle school students learn to build and fly unmanned-aircraft vehicles.

Not all the remote-controlled flights go as planned, but Roark tries to emphasize the positives in his lessons.

“They also learn to crash and rebuild them,” Roark said. “There is value in that.”

Ultimately, Roark’s plan is to have the high school students build one real airplane every year.

“The sooner we can get a child on track with that thing they love to do, the more productivity that person will have in their lives,” Roark said. “We’re losing engineers faster than we can replace them in America. It’s not that things aren’t still being built, they’re being built in other countries.”

Recently, middle school Principal Tom Heald visited the aerospace room and saw four pairs of students using the computer-flight simulators. He noticed that one pair of students were using a program that had them flying their aircraft around the Aspen area, while the pair next to them had their aircraft flying at sea level near a coastal area.

The pair flying locally complained it was more difficult to handle their aircraft compared to the kids on the coast.

“One of kids explained to me why air pressure and higher altitudes made such a big difference on how their plane handled,” Heald said.

“I quickly realized this wasn’t just a gaming situation. I was dumbfounded that they already had an understanding of air pressure and its effects. There was no teacher present to prompt them. It was obvious they understood the principle and it became real to them through the simulators. Seeing the fruition of this new program was quite a moment for me.”

Heald said he’s excited to see the other S.T.E.A.M. programs literally take off in the same way.

“We’re very fortunate to live in a community that will sponsor these new additions,” Heald said. “We’re also fortunate to have students and staff who embrace them. We really are looking at a new and exciting education curriculum.”


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