Teaching STEM to 2nd and 3rd graders

Philip Greenspun's Weblog 2017-04-29

One of the hazards of being known as an MIT nerd is being tapped to teach “STEM” to kids. Here’s what I have learned about teaching 2nd and 3rd graders…

Their budget of sitting quietly and producing stuff on paper has been used up by the school system. Everything extracurricular should be hands-on.

The goal of the class was for them to understand how helicopters worked. So they needed to learn about Newton’s Laws, the Bernoulli Principle, how a wing works (combination of Bernoulli and Newton’s Third Law), how spinning a wing guarantees airspeed even when the fuselage isn’t moving (hovering!), and why you need a tail rotor if there is just one main rotor (Newton’s Third Law again).

It turned out that discussion around a table, drawings, and making posters on these topics wasn’t that interesting to the young scholars. However, getting some foam gliders and learning that they stall and spin without the supplied nose weight was quite compelling, as were a couple of trips to the airport to see real aircraft and finally actually fly in a real helicopter (we waited for a day without the 30-knot gusts that typically plague Boston in the spring).

If I were doing it again I would change the class to “How airports work” because the airport is concrete and there is lots of stuff to see and understand. The aerodynamics of planes and helicopters can be learned in this context. Models can be made. The control tower and fire department can be visited (if it is a big airport).