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Winging It at the Museum

Since the aerospace industry is a central feature of the Puget Sound economy, flight and the basic principles or aerodynamics provide a natural context for teaching about science and mathematics to students in the region. The Museum of Flight in Seattle is a magnificent resource for teachers wanting to make the most of this opportunity. WINGS, a one-day institute for elementary school teachers, helps 25 science teachers establish a dynamic partnership with the museum and with Seattle University.

The inspiration for WINGS emerged from experiences that Edie Lie, a Boeing engineer, and myself had while directing a program for middle school students supported by the National Science Foundation.

For the past three years, students from this program have come to the Challenger Learning Center at the Museum of Flight to simulate a space mission. While there, the students learn how principles of science and mathematics are applied in a highly motivated work environment.

Though the students have always enjoyed the experience, and seem to draw much from it, Edie and I became increasingly convinced of the benefits of preparatory and follow-up activities. To create and implement them, we enlisted aid from Seattle University’s School of Fducation and the Museum of Flight, and secured financial assistance from the Tandy Foundation.

The resulting program brings participating teachers to the campus of Seattle University for a day of in-service instruction. The day begins with a discussion of teaching methodology and is followed by offering teachers a framework for designing and implementing effective field trips.

Our methods are based on constructivism, active learning, and community involvement. Such methods demonstrate that teaching need not be transmitted to students only by their instructors or textbooks. Teachers are shown how to create “learning experiences” for their students that are linked to central concepts in a curriculum, and how to allow students the opportunity to construct their own understandings from these experiences.

We accomplished this by having teachers participate in their own active learning experience. The experience begins with a brief video illustrating the physical forces that enable aircraft to fly (thrust, gravity, lift, and drag). Then, the teachers engage in a series of simple experiments that help them understand how these four forces interact with “control surfaces” in the body of an airplane to affect flight. The experiments enable teachers to draw conclusions and construct understandings about the effects of wind speed and wing angle on aircraft flight in much the same way that their own elementary school students should be encouraged to do so.

Next, the teachers construct balsa gliders from prepared kits as their students might do when visiting the Museum of Flight. By attaching aluminum-foil ailerons, elevators, and rudders to the glider, the effect of basic control surfaces can be observed in test flight. (This same “hands-on” experiment can be carried out by third, fourth, and fifth graders.)

Once the teachers understand how a change in the control surfaces of the airplane can change its flight direction, they use a Microsoft Flight Simulator to relate this to a pilot’s actions. This computer program places the teacher in the pilot’s seat, so that the he or she can see how an airplane reacts when moving the controls using a joystick. The activity builds on the understandings that emerged from the glider practice to focus on the physics of the airplane.

Following this, WINGS participants travel to the Museum of Flight, where the Youth Program Manager presents a one-hour introduction to the activities available at the museum for elementary students. These include opportunities for young people to sit in an actual miniature airplane that pitches, rolls, and yaws as the controls are moved; to discover facts about airplanes through a prepared scavenger hunt throughout the museum; to don mechanics’ jackets and learn how aircraft are flown, serviced, and maintained; to wear lab coats while practicing aeronautical design; and to discuss the advantages of different designs of museum aircraft. Teachers are better able to prepare their students for a successful field trip after seeing these options demonstrated first-hand.

The in-service day concludes with a wrap-up session in a conference space at the museum. The purpose is to explore appropriate follow-up activities. Students who know in advance that they will be asked to reflect on what they have learned during a field trip tend to become more focused and more actively involved during the experience.

Follow-up reflections can be expressed in a variety of ways. A class might put together a booklet containing contributions from each student or from teams of students working together. The entries might include not only written reports, but illustrations and charts conveying information in a visual form.

Teachers can create opportunities for students to connect the information learned on the trip to other areas in the school curriculum by using as many forms of activity and expression as possible: further reading and research; verbal presentations; science fair exhibits; dramatizations and learning games; work with a younger class in performing simple experiments such as assembling balsa wood airplanes. Teachers participating in WINGS are invited to submit lesson plans for a science unit on the principles of flight, including pre- and post-field trip activities. As an incentive, the best set of plans is rewarded with a free class trip to the museum.

Among the contributions made by the WINGS program, perhaps most important is that it enables teachers to take better advantage of museum resources while providing a model of cooperation between a corporation, a university, school districts, and a world-class museum all for the benefit of our students.

Dr. Kathleen Sullivan is a Seattle University Professor of Mathematics who earned her Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin and has a minor in Mathematics Education. In collaboration with engineers and scientists from the corporate sector and representatives from the Seattle area schools, she has developed a series Of highly successful programs for teaching mathematics and science to K- 12 students, including: Jump Start, a computer science camp offered in conjunction with a basketball camp; Project Bridge, a week-long program on environmental issues for middle school students; and Science Splash, a year-long math and science program for rising eighth graders. Dr. Sullivan is herself a former elementary, middle school, and secondary school math and science teacher.

Sullivan, Dr. Kathleen. “Winging It at the Museum,” The Docent Educator 6.2 (Winter 1996-97): 4-5.

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