Chapel Hill News

FPG third-graders hope to rocket to $30K prize

From left, Christian Cabrera, Norah Rosanbalm, Jack French and Melanie Banda Lopez were among the FPG third-grade students studying rocket science.
From left, Christian Cabrera, Norah Rosanbalm, Jack French and Melanie Banda Lopez were among the FPG third-grade students studying rocket science.

Convincing young children to collaborate on a long-term project is not rocket science, but it took one Chapel Hill class a unit on rocket science to accomplish it.

Allison Stewart’s third-grade students recently worked together to create and present rocket designs to a panel of N.C. State aerospace engineering students, Kenan Fellows, and one of Stewart’s mentors from the N.C. Science Festival.

Stewart teaches at Frank Porter Graham Elementary School in Chapel Hill. The school is bilingual, so portions of the space unit were taught in Spanish by Stewart’s partner teacher, Carlos Muñoz.

The unit, “First in Flight … and Beyond,” involved nine weeks of work and help from multiple organizations, including Smith Middle School and the Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society. Stewart submitted a video about the students’ work to the 2014-15 Follett Challenge, which awards prizes of up to $30,000 to schools that promote 21st century learning.

Stewart modeled the unit plan after a flight curriculum she developed while working with the N.C. Science Festival as part of her Kenan Fellowship. When a coworker contacted her about the Follett contest, she realized that the unit she was teaching fit the criteria.

“It just kind of lined up nicely,” she said.

The unit began in October when the students visited the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. Afterward, they learned about many concepts in class, like the forces that make rockets fly and the different parts of the solar system. To enhance their education, Stewart gave the class news articles about current events relating to the unit. “Last semester was an amazing time to be talking about space,” she said.

Students then designed their own rockets, creating blueprints and printing models of their designs with 3D printers. Ishana Saravanan, a student in Stewart’s class, said her favorite part was “when we got to see how our 3D blueprints looked (when they were) put into the 3D machine.”

Stewart said students enjoyed having the freedom to decide what their rockets would look like.

“I said that ‘you’re creating your own spacecraft. It doesn’t have to look like mine. It doesn’t have to look like one that exists,’” she said. “I think that that freedom and creativity was really exciting for them.”

One boy told her, “I really liked that you didn’t make us draw it a certain way.”

Each student wrote a five-paragraph essay explaining why an aerospace engineering company should build the rocket he or she designed. Groups of four or five students combined their essays into speeches that they presented to the panel. Once the presentations were over, students participated in a question-and-answer session with the members of the panel then watched the launch of the Orion spacecraft.

Stewart would like the public to vote for Frank Porter Graham in the Follett Challenge because “we’re a very special school.” Voting runs through Friday.

If the school wins the grant, the money will go toward ordering more Spanish books for the school library. She hopes there will eventually be an equal number of Spanish and English books. Some online Spanish resources will be purchased as well.

“Voting for Frank Porter Graham means giving kids the opportunity to become bilingual,” she said.

Sam Marcus, a student who participated in the unit, would like people to vote for the school because “we deserve a reward for what we did really hard work for.”

Stewart is already planning for next year. She hopes students remember the information they learned this time about space and flight, but hopes even more that they retain the skills they learned, like collaborating with others and speaking publicly.

“What we’re teaching kids about cultural competence and character education I think is so critical,” she said. “If you’re looking around at the things going on today … it’s awful. I think we’re taking steps every way that we can to ensure that students understand differences of any kind so that they can learn how to work together and be collaborative. I think that’s a 21st century learning skill that’s so often overlooked.”