Tag Archives: STEM

Mass versus Weight: A unique STEM approach

I regularly incorporate NASA activities into my physical science curriculum.  In this post, I cover how I introduced a NASA lesson on  Mass vs. Weight into my classroom.  This particular lesson can be found on the NASA education page.  While this post will focus on physical science, the lesson could be easily incorporated into other disciplines.

Students commonly misuse the terms “mass” and “weight”.   The principal objective of the lesson is for students to properly define and explain the difference between the two concepts.

KEY CONCEPT: Mass is the amount of matter in an object and weight is a force due to the gravitational pull on an object.  Mass is constant despite exposure to gravity, while weight is a measurement of force upon an object based on gravitational pull.  This difference is often difficult for students to grasp because they have a singular experience–gravity on planet Earth.

The activity, Mass versus Weight (on the NASA website), explores the concepts of mass, weight, forces, Newton’s Laws, gravity  and micro-gravity across four lessons.

In the first lesson plan, students are introduced to three astronauts through reading exercises and video and provided and overview of concept.  My students felt connected to the astronauts and enjoyed watching the videos that explained the experiments on the International Space Station (ISS) and how the micro-gravity changed the behavior of the activity.

The first activity, Stretching Mass, required students to record mass and volume and observe the gravitational pull on a full versus empty Capri-Sun juice pouch. Predictions were made regarding the result of the same test conducted in  a micro-gravity environment.  Following their predictions, students watched videos shot on the ISS in which the astronauts carried out the same experiment.   The students enjoyed seeing the changes and verifying their predictions.IMG_7605video of astonaut 2
In this picture, Nicole Passonno Stott (NASA astronaut) performs the same experiment with Capri-Sun juice pouches in space.

In the second activity, Air-Powered Mass,  students created paper containers to hold pennies (change in mass).  A series of straws were placed horizontally in a line below the box to create a roller belt.  A balloon pump was used to force burst of air against the container and propel is over the straw rollers. The experiment was repeated with additional pennies (increase in mass) added between each set.  Students recorded the mass and distance traveled during each set.  Instructor-led presentations covered mass, momentum, Newton’s laws of motion and forces using the experiment as  a case study.IMG_7610
TIP:  Keep the type of air pump consistent for each group.  I used two different air pumps and one didn’t push air out as consistently as the other.FullSizeRender
Students were prompted to make predictions how this same activity would work in a micro-gravity environment, then watched video of two astronauts preforming the experiment.
video of astronaut pictures
Here Robert Brent Thirsk and Koichi Wakata perform the experiment with a large air gun.  Students observed that the air pushed on the container the same way.  Due to a lesser gravitational pull, the object stayed in motion and did not stop.

The series continues with a lesson on Accelerating Mass and an activity,  Designing Your Own Experiment.   I was unable to fit this lesson in due to time constraints.  I did not find the omission of this lesson as a detriment.  My students demonstrated an understanding of the concepts, mass versus weight, and had an early introduction to Newton’s laws and forces.

Stay tuned for my next post on how I incorporated NASA’s Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) engineering design challenge activity into my curriculum at the end of my elements/compounds/mixtures chapter.  My students loved it so much they wanted to do it again!!



Day 3 Log: Honeywell Educators @ Space Academy


Flight crew for Atlantis

Day 3: Log

What an exciting day!  Lots of simulations, starting with our mission.  Our goal was to relieve the duties of the astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).  Four members of Team Harmony were aboard the orbiter (Atlantis), four were in the ISS and the remaining six were mission control.

There were many things going on in my mind; don’t blow up the ship by pressing the wrong button, don’t leave your crew behind in space, don’t crash while you’re landing.  All of this aside, my main thought was that it takes a team to do this.  Mission control was our lifeline in the orbiter.  When they didn’t respond to our call outs, we felt isolated.  We had multiple anomalies thrown at us and needed to communicate that information to mission control, they would then figure out a solution and tell us how to stop the problem.  We worked well under the pressure and completed the mission successfully! (Perfect landing too!)  The simulation made us stronger as a team.  What a unique experience!  If I do have an opportunity to bring students in the future, I know that this will be a highlight for them and solidify their team.


Flight crew for Atlantis (minus one, we left her on the ISS )


Team Harmony Members


Team Harmony Members

Soon after our simulator, we went to rocketry 101.  Building rockets as a class project uses all three learning styles, visual, auditory and tactile.  It is a great activity to focus on teamwork, basic engineering skills and to promote an interest in space exploration.  You can find applications to rocketry in history, science, technology, math and art.  IMG_5714[1]

I currently build rockets as an activity at the end of the year.  I do not provide my students with a whole lot of guidance and expect them to read the directions and work with a partner stressing communication and responsibility.  After attending this class at the space academy, I plan to re-vamp my whole set-up.  It is important for kids to feel ownership of their rocket.  If you can afford it, one rocket per student would be ideal.  If not, two students to a rocket is good; that is how I organize the project in my class.  Provide your students with 1-2 hours to work on it (this includes gluing and spray painting).  Set up a hot glue station and provide supplies like Elmer’s Glue on their desk.  I liked how the space academy instructors used shish-kabob skewers to provide a vertical post to slide your rocket down so it stands up in the grass and you can spray paint it.  They also used the instructions from the bags as a protector for the grass.


Working on the rockets

IMG_5546[1] IMG_5547[1]

On launch day, the space academy is fortunate to team up with the Estes Company and create a multi-rocket launch system (including a large wooden wall with windows to shield the students).  Most teachers do not have access to this kind of set-up and would most likely do what I do, which is to have all students where googles and stand back.  The electric circuit launcher that I have with my smaller Estes rockets has the system designed so the student stands a safe distance back.  See video for a visual of the launch at the space academy!  

In the late afternoon, before dinner, we had a presentation on commercial and international space flight.  What was very interesting about this discussion was the fact that there are a number of rockets being launched all of the time! Check out this link for the 2015 launch schedule:  http://www.nasa.gov/launchschedule/

The following pdf will help give you an insight on what happened LAST WEEK aboard the ISS.  Notice the landing dates.  If you read my log from day 1, you will notice that we had the opportunity to watch the live footage of the Soyuz TMA-15M landing back on Earth.  Samantha Cristoforetti was the astronaut on board that broke the record for the most number of days in space for a female.   np-2015-03-011-jsc-expedition-43-summary  Exciting things are currently happening in the realm of space exploration.  Here is a quick list of what I picked up on in the presentation but you can guarantee that I will touch on a lot more in my classes the following school year.

-The Rosetta comet landing happened in late 2014 through efforts from the European Space Agency (ESA).  After a decade of orbiting the galaxy the probe, Philae, finally made contact with the comet and now has plans to stay with it for a year tracking data on the make-up and geological history.  Click here for more details.

Asteroid Redirect Mission: This is exactly as it sounds.  NASA would like to capture and drag and asteroid into the moon’s orbit to use it for research, planetary defense against other asteroids and as a location as a half-way point for deep space exploration.

-3D printing has come to the ISS.  This really caught my attention because of the work I am doing in my own classroom.  Astronauts are now printing tools and other supplies that they may need aboard the ISS reducing critical payload weight for the launches. Click here for more details.

-MARS or BUST.  If you haven’t heard, we are going to Mars!  Humans not yet, but it will happen in our lifetime.  Click here for an awesome NASA website that explains our current rovers on Mars.   This link explains how NASA and ESA have signed agreements to continue the exploration to eventually get humans to Mars.

-The New Horizons program is going to be BIG very soon.  This rocket was launched 8.5 years ago and is scheduled to fly by Pluto very soon.  In fact, it will pass the dwarf planet on July 14, 2015 at 7:49:56 am EST.  The fact that they know this is mind-boggling.  Click here for more details on this incredible mission.  This spacecraft will take pictures of Pluto’s atmospheric and surface composition.  This link will show you what the spacecraft looks like.  What I thought was interesting was that students designed a piece of the spacecraft that analyzes the space dust it encounters.  A very cool “plug-in” is that one of our very own alumnae of Cranbrook, Dr. Kathy Olkin, is involved in this project.  I plan on reaching out to her in the fall to Skype with us.  She did visit our school 2 years ago but now she will have even more amazing findings to show.

-The James Webb Telescope will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System.  (http://jwst.nasa.gov/about.html)

A couple of other things I jotted down in my notes from this discussion:

16 countries are associated with the ISS.

400 people have been to space.

Space Launch System (SLS) is the next vehicle to Mars.

NASA has selected two companies (Boeing and Space X) to focus on low orbit work (like the ISS).  NASA’s focus is now into deep space and Mars.

To end the night, (and this blog post) Team Harmony participated in two astronaut training simulators; the multi-access trainer and the 1/6 gravity moon simulator.  Note: the multi-access trainer does not make you get nauseous because your stomach stays in place and you do not rotate more than twice in a certain direction.

Thanks for reading!  Stay tuned for Day 4 Log.  More simulators and cool activities for the classroom!


Day 1 Log: Honeywell Educators @ Space Academy


Honeywell Educators at the Space Academy #HESA2015

Day 1 Log

Incredible is an understatement.  I am pinching myself…..how did I get here?  The day started with information on our jam packed one-week agenda.  We received space suits the night before along with a bunch of other Honeywell “swag”! Introductions of the staff were made along with assignments of teams, each named after an ISS module.  Our team name: HARMONY.


Basically take advantage of every opportunity offered here!


Our first presenter, Ed Buckbee @RealSpaceCowboy has been a part of the U.S. space program for four decades.  He started in 1959 when America’s first Mercury astronauts were selected and attended launches of Alan Sheppard and John Glenn.  He was present for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions.IMG_5254

As a NASA public affairs officer, Buckbee worked for rocket scientist Wernher von Braun at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.  In 1970, he founded the highly successful U.S. Space Camp and Aviation Challenge programs.  IMG_5263

His book, The Real Space Cowboys, touches on the lives of the early astronauts and the time in history where the  “race to the moon” was a hot topic.  Buckbee showed us a lot of really neat old videos, many from the moon landings.  Twelve U.S astronauts have walked on the moon and there have been 8 landings of rovers and probes on Mars.  Nine-hundred astronauts have been launched in space in the past 5 decades.  The space history that I learned today and once I read Mr. Buckbee’s book will only enhance the way I present the different projects I plan to implement this year.  Students need to know the “why” and the “how”.  I like the idea of incorporating history lessons into my units as a cross-curricular project.


The afternoon sessions were very exciting!  After lunch we had a presentation on flight hardware and engine components.  I found it fascinating to learn the anatomy of a rocket with capsules for the crew, payloads and fuel.  One of the main things that I will take away from this 1-hour session is the information provided about solid, liquid and hypergolic (mixed) fuel.  I can see myself adapting this information into a demonstration for my phase change unit at the beginning of the year or exothermic reaction unit later in chemistry.

This first video demonstrates a solid propellant.  Solid propellants give off a lot of energy and therefore a lot of thrust for a rocket but you cannot control this reaction.

This next video demonstrates a liquid propellant.  Liquid propellants give off less energy than solid propellants but you can control how much liquid is released.

This last video demonstrates a hypergolic propellant which is unique because it does not need an igniter, just an interaction between the reactants to start the reaction.  You would think this type of reaction would be the best out of three but hypergolic propellants are difficult to handle and are extremely toxic.

Our final presenter of the day was Astronaut Robert (Hoot) Gibson.  As a former Navy pilot and trained aeronautical engineer, “Hoot” led 5 shuttle missions, 1 as pilot and 4 as commander.  One of his “firsts” in space was docking the Atlantis shuttle at the Russian space station, MIR.IMG_5311[1]

I learned a great deal from his talk that I will take back into my classroom. It takes the shuttle 8.5 minutes to enter orbit travelling around 17,500 mph.IMG_5296[1]

Astronauts in the shuttle complete an orbit every 90 minutes so 45 minutes of sunlight for recharging batteries and 45 minutes of darkness.


Photo taken over Greenland


Night views over the Nile River delta and northern Africa.


Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)

This was my first time meeting an astronaut. I asked him about medical issues that one may experience after completing a mission in space.  He said that your first problem in zero G’s is the fluids in your body.  Your face may swell and your sinuses will act up.  You tend to lose 8 pounds in zero G’s and your body stretches (no pressure on your vertebrae).  For longer stays on the ISS for example, you can potentially lose .5 to 1.5% of your bone calcium.  Some astronauts have to go through rehabilitation because of brittle bones.  You can also experience critical back muscle loss that could be a serious issue.  This information is important to relay back to students.  Class discussions could evolve into, “why would one want to put their health at risk?” or “what would happen if we do make it to Mars?”


Astronaut Robert Gibson

Overall, my day was packed full of excitement and learning.  Tomorrow our team will participate in a low ropes course, aviation challenge water survival and a mission training.  Stay tuned!!!

Thanks for reading!


Honeywell Educators @ Space Academy

Honeywell Educators @ Space Academy




Next week, I will be partaking in an adventure of a lifetime.

It all started last Fall when I was selected as a 2015 Honeywell Corporation scholarship recipient.  This program sends over 200 middle school math and science teachers from all over the world to the United States Space and Rocket Center (USSRC) in Huntsville, Al. for a week-long intense training in STEM curriculum and astronaut simulations!

I am gearing up for this incredible experience which I will document on this blog.  I just registered with the University of Alabama to complete a three-credit hour course on Space Orientation for Educators as a follow up of the week at USSRC.  I’m getting my packing list in order and my kids ready to go to grandma’s house!  Follow #HESA2015 to read up on the events of the week!

This year, Honeywell Educators at the Space Academy (HESA) is welcoming 205 educators from 24 countries this summer. See where they are from!



Learn more about this ‘game-changing’ experience for math and science teachers!

Can’t wait for this incredible experience!!  Stay tuned!

Thanks for reading,


A great way to introduce the concept of elements, compounds and mixtures

Last week marked the introduction of elements, compounds and mixtures.  I always like to begin the unit with an activity that will make my students pose questions and raise their level of curiosity.  One great activity that I came across by Flinn Scientific, Inc. is titled “Classifying Matter: A Nuts and Bolts Demonstration”. Click here for a copy:  Nuts and Bolts Activity What I like about this activity is that you are representing elements, compounds and mixtures with bolts, nuts and washers.  You provide the students with different scenarios such as: all bolts, or bolts with nuts attached or bolts with nuts attached and scattered washers.  Students are a little confused at first when you ask them to identify which ones represent elements, compounds or mixtures but they quickly pick up on the pattern and enjoy the activity.  After, I give them the short quiz, which is provided on the second page of the attached activity and have them work in teams to see who can correctly identify the most scenarios (this time using shapes).  For homework, since my class is flipped, I assign a video that defines elements and compounds and explains where they are located on the periodic table.  See my flipped video below for more information.

After watching the video, I want my students to become even more engaged with the periodic table.  The next lesson does just that utilizing the power of augmented reality.  Using DAQRI’s Elements 4D Blocks, students now have the ability to manipulate elements they could never see in a middle school science laboratory setting.  Today, my students scanned up to 36 different elements and discovered concepts such as location of the periodic table, color, state of matter and classification.  Click here for a copy of the lesson plans.  See the video below to watch this lesson in action!

Tomorrow we will be making pyrite!  Looks like an exciting unit in science. Stay tuned and thanks for reading!