Adventures with Missile Defense (Part I)

“The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Even if you don’t care about science or STEM, I still need you to read this; it could be a matter of national defense. This three-part Adventure asks which is easier; getting one million students in STEM careers in 10 years or intercepting a missile in space with no warning? Ever since I returned from a week of packed professional development with the Missile Defense Agency in the quaint town of Huntsville, Alabama last summer, the question has been on my mind. The Executive Director of the Missile Defense Agency asked me to do my part; now I’m asking you to do yours. Read this, and maybe you’ll understand why.

Resources are in order through the SPECTRUM Acrostic

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Quick! Throw a small ball in the air, and then try to intercept that ball with another small ball, all in the split second both are in the air. Tough, right? Next time, try the same thing except use a paper airplane instead of the small intercepting ball. Got it? Great! Now, this time I want you to try it with tons of metal at hypersonic speed, above the atmosphere, and little to no warning. This is a bullet-to-bullet interception, and it’s precisely what thousands of people at Missile Defense Agency (MDA) prepare for every day on a global scale. This branch of the Department of Defense is not fed solely by the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines. Instead, it requires extensive collaboration with all military branches, even NASA!

Unlike NASA, however, MDA is not concerned with sending a rocket to space solely for exploration. There’s no satellite on top of their rocket, nor an astronaut. MDA rockets aren’t wheeled majestically, albeit slowly, to a launch pad for all to watch. They are instead buried under silos 65′ underground at various Air Force Bases. They deploy with minutes or even seconds’ notice and, yes, actually intercept something traveling the exact opposite direction of it, somewhere in space at hyper-balistic speeds. Regardless of threat, the STEM involved with such a feat is real.

MDA can’t boast “practice makes perfect,” either. Test missions are expensive; few and far between. Yet, somehow, these folks are expected to protect us should the unthinkable happen and a nuclear warhead is launched in our direction. According to Executive Director John H. James, “if or when it happens, we will stop it.” Before my week with MDA’s brilliant STEM Ed team this summer, I would’ve scoffed at the prospect, thinking I don’t like war movies so none of this applies to me anyway. After hearing his somber and precise keynote inside MDA’s board room, I’m forced to agree and fuel the mission of peace in my own – and considerably less-pressured – way.

Thanks to the STEM education initiative by the Missile Defense Agency, my mission this year is to design approaches, implement activities, and meaningfully reflect on student engagement in STEM. Ms. Rowell (I’m the T in this picture), 6th grade science teacher, arriving for duty.

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We need one million people to pursue STEM careers to remain the powerful tech society the great folks from the Apollo days built. We’re still riding the wave from the Space Race and we haven’t replaced those retiring heroes. By the way, we need to do this in the next 10 years.

Somehow in the 50 years since we landed on the Moon, USA’s engineering workforce fell behind. According to University of Alabama Huntsville’s professor Dr. PJ Benfield, we need 34% more STEM careers filled in the USA and have currently filled 2%. His unique mixture of humor and serious banter delivered the dire messages of the global helium shortage and other dwindling resources. He’s a great connection for education technology by the way, and he specifically asked you to contact him if you need support to fill this mission.

Who can build the tallest structure? (Remind me to tell you about redesign and flow next time.)

Us science (et al) teachers, we think we know it all, right? I mean, we literally show children how to learn how the world works; from the atom to the cell to the universe. Maybe make it fun, too. Just this is enough, right? (Well, no one knows how hard it is until they actually do it.) Also, we rarely know what becomes of the students as they continue down the assembly line of education. In this manufacturing analogy, my work is akin to adding the steering wheel column to a chasis while a high school teacher staples upholstery and installs wheels. It’s ok that we don’t know how the final product drives, because we installed our part correctly and efficiently. This is enough, no?

No. My mind was blown by the additional call to produce one million STEM-career candidates in an ever-changing world. To clarify, MDA did not direct this. They gave us an overwhelming show of support and asked only to spread the word of STEM Education in return. It’s me who took the rest to action. How will I ever know the impact of my work?

Speaking of support, I now have a community of teachers from our summer cohort and a huge box of supplies from the kit by MDA. What’s inside? Come to my STEM clubs, and the Adventures Parts II and III, to find out.

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Meet Stan. Stan is a director for Targets and Countermeasures at MDA who helped me understand the importance of bringing “the why” to all engineering in my science and STEM classes. “Demanding a threshold,” he called it. Injecting pedagogy in teaching STEM – from never giving up on a kid to enriching discourse with building groups – is just some of what Stan does to promote our work with students. As we all know, engineering is more than the design and build cycle. His inspiring words, particularly around how to foster an environment with risk-based mistakes and growth mindset, helped me reverse-engineer my entire approach to inquiry learning. The results are tangible, or else I wouldn’t be able to tell these Adventures. Thanks Stan.

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As Stan confirmed, the general consensus to getting anyone to learn anything – from table manners to swimming to reading – is to start ‘em young. So getting students engaged in science concepts and engineering solutions can and should start in Kinder, right? We all know the importance of starting reading and math, so learning it through the lens, and curiosity, of science should be a reasonable and favorable shift. I teach 6th grade where some students haven’t even experienced science yet, let alone know what it is. Me and my tye-dye labcoat are likely their first exposure to it, even though we’re in middle school.

Filled with strategies to dispel any preconceptions about science, I now teach children to “put some science in it” whenever we need to solve a problem. With a school-based initiative to seek and measure 100% student engagement on the daily, I immediately benefitted from rebooting my tool box this summer. My life got a lot better when I changed my classroom to a place where you can learn anything you want about science, not where Ms. Rowell will teach science itself. If you’re interested in learning and sharing strategies along the many paths to student-centered classrooms, please join our STEMJourneys Facebook Group.

Oh! Stay tuned for my new project: STEM(Fun), where putting the fun in STEM is, well, fun.

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With all my professional development (both as a provider and learner), this was a rare opportunity to experience a 45-hour program solely as a teacher. We had rich, albeit sometimes uncomfortable, discourse while building Project-Based Learning lessons. We teachers are all somewhere on the path to building student-centered – maybe even student-driven – classrooms, so it’s natural to have some bumps along the way. Experiencing this, as well as reading up on best practices like these, helped me see where I am along the journey to 100% student engagement, and immediately paid off in my practices this school year.

As students, we launched biodegradable weather balloons and tracked them using weather apps, built free-standing structures in multiple stages to encourage redesign and flow, simulated precise rocket launches using straw rockets, and experimented with concepts of density, friction, forces and motion, and properties of matter. We toured facilities like U.S. Space and Rocket Center and Boeing Defense Training Facility. Pictures weren’t allowed in the latter, but I’ll post what I can when they are released by MDA 🙂

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In my third formal year in the classroom, I now understand I’m not sure who learns more in education; the student or the teacher. The results of this week, other than the daunting one million STEM careers call to action, included a broader understanding of the military and our current defense strategies. My own scientific literacy about the “lurking threat” to our nation’s security, particularly cyber threats, increased as did my weariness. I read more now, and track the events of meetings with North Korea, China, and Russia. I seek to understand more about foreign policy and how the lives of others are affected by our decisions (and vice versa).

Best of all, I have my new materials kit which has an arsenal of activities; including tendon-based robotics with hydraulic syringes, balsam wood gliders, flex mirrors and LightBlox, and my favorite, straw rocket launchers (pictured here). I’ll be sharing the results of these lessons in Parts II and III, and for ideas on how to use these lessons you can download my DRAFT lesson plan on light called “Star Wars & STEM” in the free download section.

Launching straw rockets with happy children.

According to the National Science & Technology Council’s Strategy for STEM Literacy in December 2018, “all Americans will have lifelong access to high-quality STEM education and the United States will be the global leader in STEM literacy, innovation, and employment.” I think we can more easily guide students to the paths of STEM, and my question is WOULDN’T we choose a career in STEM? The choices are limitless, and the material is FUN 🙂

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I do not have an Undo for this experience, other than perhaps what got us to this shortage of STEM professionals to begin with. Missile defense is always going to be in our lives, and their task is of course more daunting than mine. I’m so impressed by their STEM Education initiative, and appreciate the opportunity to be at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center during the 50th anniversary of Apollo. Try to apply y’all.

(New life goal: Go to all the NASAs. Two down, eight to go.)


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Among the many special guest keynotes we met throughout the packed week, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Shery Welsh, a director for Science and Technology. Her presentation for “The Importance of STEM Education” was not preaching to the choir. It was a token given to us science teachers on how we on the right path with the right heading. If we’re going to get one million people in STEM careers in the next 10 years, then we as educators need support, and more folks like her, no? Yes.

To end Part I of this Adventure, I share this: I recently experienced a former 8th-grader telling me she chose to go into aerospace engineering because of my love of space education. 1 down, 999,999 to go.

Download & Thanks

Once, while walking on the Great Wall of China touring a group of engineers through career-immersion trip, a student told me I’m kind to everyone I meet along the way. One of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received.

Inspired by Rise of Skywalker and all things Star Wars lately (Baby Yoda!), I wrote this lesson on light with every intention of providing the WOW factor for my 6th graders.Also, I wanted to play with our LightBlox from the kit. I implemented the lesson just this week so haven’t yet included my final reflections (pardon the pun). There’s much to improve, including adding more discrepant events and more competition, etc. “Be kind,” I tell all my students, as I then tell myself along my own humbling writing journey.

STEMJourneys Activity, Star Wars & STEM

This Adventure is dedicated to the very nice person (Lara) who gave me compostable straws for my straw rockets in my materials kit. You know who you are 🙂

The mission of is to engage teachers as they cultivate student-centered classrooms, one Adventure at a time. Site content and SPECTRUM acrostic copyright © 2020 Jess Rowell, All Rights Reserved. Not responsible for any third-party content.

Follow our adventures with #thisiswhatstemlookslike #stemjourneys and #mdastemed.


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