What. A. Year. More than 14 months ago, news about the COVID-19 outbreak forced Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) to close their doors and switch to virtual learning. The transition has been hard on many, but most of all on the students.
As if keeping students’ attention wasn’t already hard enough, the virtual learning platform adopted by MCPS: Zoom, allowed middle school and high school students to turn their camera function off. For a teacher, it might have made it more challenging to keep the students interested and focused on the lesson plan. So, how exactly do you keep students engaged throughout a pandemic?
One way is to provide students the opportunity to do some hands-on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) activities. Technology Teacher John Lee and Naval Architect Douglas Griggs, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division’s (NSWCCD) Hydrodynamics Trial director, have run The Maryland Marauding Mustangs, an after-school STEM program at Earle B. Wood Middle School, in Rockville, Maryland, for several years.
The club, sponsored by the Flying Aces Club and the National Free Flight Society, focuses on teaching students to build and fly rubber-powered, free-flight airplanes. This year, the after-school club received support from NSWCCD’s STEM and Outreach program, which provided Javelin flyer model kits, tools and materials that Griggs and Lee delivered to each student’s home.
“For the most part, I just donated the materials myself, but with COVID, I needed to get each student a full tool kit to build independently,” Griggs said. “The STEM and Outreach program, through Charlotte George [director], stepped up.”
Since January 2021, the Mustangs have been meeting and building over Zoom, preparing for their International Postal Contest. The club came together in person for the first time this year on April 25, at Davis Airfield in Laytonsville, Maryland.
“We had nine official members with a bunch more siblings, parents and even a dog join us,” Lee said. “It was clear that every kid, students and siblings, had at least one memorable flight, and most had quite a few.”
While the students were excited and eager to test their airplanes, Griggs was standing by ready to repair and assist damaged parts. The students had a wise mentor in Griggs with over 20 years of experience in building and flying rubber-powered, traditional free-flight model airplanes,
“Mr. Griggs didn’t see as much of the activity on the field as he'd have liked because he was frantically repairing as fast as the kids could break stuff,” Lee said. “But he did get a chance to help a student put up a 27-second javelin flight. Ryan [the student] had a longer flight earlier, but that was without landing gear, which was required for the official flights. We strapped the landing gear from Mr. Griggs javelin onto Ryan's plane for some legit official flights.”
Griggs did, however, have an impressive flight himself. “Mr. Griggs snuck a couple flights of his javelin in too, achieving a respectable 45 seconds in 10-15 mph winds,” Lee added.
Although the weather hindered the flights significantly, Griggs said there were other clubs that had a similar outcome. As a result, the event organizers are planning to redo the contest in late May, running it for nine days instead of two. Overall, Griggs was upbeat about the whole event and said he felt proud of his students.
“Despite the weather, this may have been the best day of flying ever,” he said. “Seeing the families of our students safely and thoroughly enjoying each other – and the magic of free flight, was all I could ask. The iffy weather let up just enough for everyone to fly and run around and just generally have happy pandemonium.”
Griggs’s priority has always been to teach students to use their hands and brain together to create things from raw materials. According to Griggs, some of these traditional assembly skills are lost to video games, drones and foam planes. He and Lee are motivating students to read and interpret drawing, and teaching them to transform two-dimensional information into three-dimensional objects.
“We want them to learn how to fit, adjust, assemble, operate and repair things that others might just throw away,” Griggs said. “The motto of the Maryland Marauding Mustangs brazenly steals MIT’s motto, ‘Mens et Manos’, or ‘mind to hand’ and adds a bit: ‘Mens et manos ad Caelum’, or ‘mind to hand to sky.’ These skills apply far beyond simple model building and they are learning in a fun and engaging activity.”
In the past 10 years of running the program, Griggs said there are two moments that stick out.
“The first was a couple years ago when I showed up at the school early in the year to discuss when we would start the program back up with Mr. Lee, and one of the students from the previous year was in the room,” he said. “When he saw me, his whole face lit up and he excitedly asked, ‘Are we doing planes today?’ His joy was infectious.
The second was the flying session we just had. When the cars started rolling in, and we ended up with almost every student along with younger and older siblings and parents, I was stunned and thrilled. The joy and magic of flight that I felt myself and that I felt from my students and their families was one of the best experiences of my life.”