Class Not Just A Lot Of Hot Air
By: Brent Runyon
“Attention please,” Janice K. Lewis said to her students as they mingled in the new 7th grade science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) class at Lawrence School Wednesday morning. “Five, four, three, two...”
Before she said, “one,” the students fell silent around the six large butcher block tables and focused on her at the front of the room. On the board behind her was a trivia question asking where Leonardo da Vinci was born to focus them on the day’s lesson—the science of flight.
“Leonardo Da Vinci was born in...” she paused, “say it, one, two, three...”
“Italy!” The students said in unison.
Da Vinci was one of the first to think about how people could fly, she explained. He sketched gliders and helicopters hundreds of years before the Wright brothers flew the first plane, she said.
But the students not only studied the science of flight, they experimented with it too. As part of understanding the science of flight, the students made their own hot air balloons out of tissue paper and glue and tested them on Wednesday.
The new class expands the 8th grade engineering class which started last year. It was made possible through a $9,900 grant from the Falmouth Education Foundation which was used to purchase all the supplies for the entire year, including hand and power tools.
After Ms. Lewis reviewed the science of flight, the students moved the tables out of the way and gathered their colorful hot air balloons. Natalie Guthrie, Reece Roth, and Jessie Terray plugged in an indoor balloon tester, which pumped out hot air like a hair dryer. They held their multi-colored balloon so it filled with hot air under a 20-foot skylight. After five minutes, they counted down, “three, two, one” and let it go.
We Have Liftoff
The balloon lifted off the ground, but drifted into an overhead fluorescent light about 10 feet off the ground, before it floated back to the floor. The result was a bit disappointing, but Jessie said she understood what happened. They let go of the balloon at different times so it drifted sideways, she said. There are four forces that produce flight—thrust, lift, weight and drag—and hot air balloons should only use lift to float straight to the ceiling, Jessie said.
It’s like taking all the really really fun parts of science and putting them together in one class.
Nearby Jack Bonoli and Alex Kourafas filled their red, white, and blue balloon with hot air. The class is fun, Jack said. “It’s like taking all the really really fun parts of science and putting them together in one class,” he said. When they let go of their balloon it went up 12 feet.
“There are a lot of things that can go wrong,” Jack said. In this case, there were too many small holes in the balloon and they did not hold it over the hot air long enough. “We rushed it a little,” he said.
Lessons from STEM class apply to other classes and vice versa, Jack said. When the air heats up, the molecules expand the balloon causing it to rise. The same principle applies to water and is what makes the ocean currents flow, he said.
The hands-on class is one of the best things about his new school, he said. It was a little nerve-racking coming to 7th grade and changing classes for the first time, he said, but the teachers have all been really nice. “There’s not too much homework,” he said. “I’m not staying up till midnight.”
Across the room, Isaac Mihailescu and his group focused on sealing all the holes in their balloon before they launched it, and it lifted 20-feet high, all the way to the skylights. The class is his favorite at the new school, Isaac said.
There are a number of kids who struggle in traditional classes who shine here.
The class is designed to teach the students critical thinking skills through the engineering process. To build a hot air balloon strong enough to lift people, they would need a hotter heat source, stronger fabric, and more of it, Isaac said.
In the center of the room all the students gathered together for one last countdown. At the beginning of class, three girls found their balloon in bad shape. “It had holes the size of my face,” Ms. Lewis said.
They spent the whole period patching the holes, and were finally ready to launch. The class gathered around and counted down from 10 together.
The balloon went up almost 10 feet, but quickly dropped back to earth. “Give them a round of applause, their balloon had a really rough day,” Ms. Lewis said.
One of the girls, Madi Lima, said the patches added additional weight which made it harder to lift with the hot air. “I thought the projects would be super hard, but they’re actually really fun,” she said.
The class gives students with all different abilities and backgrounds a chance to try some hands-on learning. “I thought it would be hard to get into because I’m not really into this stuff,” said Jonathan Decker.
Exposing All Students To STEM Class
All the 7th graders at Lawrence School will get to experience the new STEM class before the end of the year. Each class lasts one trimester, before the students move onto other subjects.
“A huge part of this class is just problem solving,” said Ms. Lewis. The students learn to work together in groups to identify problems and identify solutions.
The class also makes it easier for special needs students to participate and thrive. “There are a number of kids who struggle in traditional classes who shine here,” she said.
STEM classes also teach the students that all the subjects are connected, she said. “Science is not a bubble. Math is not a bubble. Nothing is in a bubble,” she said.
Ms. Lewis is from New Jersey originally, and went to Bates College in Maine. After college she worked in an education program on tall ships in Washington State, where she met her husband, the 8th grade engineering teacher Robert M. Porto. She moved to Cape Cod with Mr. Porto, who summered here as a child. She worked for a time at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, before going back to college to get her master’s degree at Lesley College.
Ms. Lewis, who was a substitute last year and is in her first year as a full-time teacher at the junior high school, said she has wanted to be a science teacher since 9th grade. Her background is a perfect fit for the science and experiential learning style of the STEM class, she said. Lawrence School Principal Nancy Taylor agreed and said Ms. Lewis is a great fit for the school.
In the next lesson on the science of flight, students will design and build their own balsa wood gliders. That will require the use of some hand tools, which adds an element of danger to the class. Students must bring in permission slips signed by their parents. It is no accident that the students started with tissue paper and glue before moving to hand tools and saws, Ms. Lewis said.
The 7th grade STEM class is one of 19 projects supported by the Falmouth Education Foundation grants this year totaling $69,007.
The Falmouth Education Foundation raises funds through its annual Winter Gala and Auction, which is planned for March 2. This year the foundation will honor Brenda B. Swain, executive director of the Falmouth Service Center, for her years of work for children and families on Cape Cod.
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