Aerospace, Robotics … and Hip Hop

June 1, 2012

Most teachers might consider rocketry and hip-hop dance as subjects too dissimilar to handle.

Not so Nancy Hoover, a physics teacher and program coordinator from Lloyd C. Bird High School in Chesterfield, Va. For her, watching some kids calculate an apogee and others bust a move is all in a school day’s work.

Hoover uses hands-on rocketry projects as learning tools in the classroom. She also sponsors several Team America Rocketry Challenge teams, which design and build models intended to meet specific performance criteria. In 2012, for instance, the contest calls for student rockets to hit an altitude of 800 feet and return a cargo of two intact raw eggs to the ground, with flight duration of 43 to 47 seconds. “It’s just like NASA. You have limited time and limited supplies, and you have to launch it over and over,” says Hoover.

After launching model rockets, Nancy Hoover poses with Mallory Pitchford (l) and Thienson Nguyen (c). (Photos courtesy of Nancy Hoover)

As for dance, Hoover has used the “Cupid Shuffle” as an aid in learning computer programming. She had participants in her girls-only engineering and math summer camp write a flow chart listing directions for a robot to perform the dance. She also sponsors her school’s hip-hop dance club. There is a nice open spot outside her office where four to six students started dancing last year. Then they decided to form a club and asked Hoover whether she would help.

“That’s my new hat. They are not engineering kids at all. They just like to dance, so I gave them a chance,” says Hoover, who herself once intended to major in music in college.

Hoover uses unique and entertaining teaching methods to engage students in demanding science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) topics. She’s established an aerospace engineering club, runs robotics efforts, and organized Brown Bag Seminars that bring together students, parents, and professionals to help promote STEM careers.

A few years ago, she returned to school to earn a doctorate. For these reasons and more she was named the 2011 Air Force Association National Teacher of the Year. “Dr. Hoover is recognized as an absolutely outstanding and highly regarded instructor known to be driven to the highest levels of achievement for her profession and her students,” reads the Virginia state Air Force Association letter nominating her for the award.

Hoover herself says that if she has an educational philosophy, it is to give students problems that require their science knowledge to solve. “I’m really fond of kids making things,” she says.

In physics, when dealing with momentum, impulse, and collisions, she always brings up auto crashes as a means of making the subject more real. She also gives students five pieces of paper with which to construct a structure they use to catch an egg dropped from the ceiling. The point is to keep the egg from breaking. For several years she had students design a “sumo wrestler car.” They combined batteries, electric engines, and gears into model vehicles that crashed together and pushed competitors out of a ring, as sumo wrestlers do. The students had to consider whether to emphasize torque or speed and how maneuverable their vehicle had to be. “That was cool,” she says. “I’ve also had them make a catapult that was supposed to hit a target on demand.”

She has used catapults as the foundation for interdisciplinary lessons, as well. After students finish designing a catapult with their physics and engineering skills, Hoover has them research the impact of history on catapult design—and the impact on history of catapults. The result is a comprehensive written report.

“This collaborative inquiry approach to learning is so effective and is being duplicated throughout the school,” wrote Lloyd C. Bird High School Principal Beth N. Teigen in a letter to the AFA Teacher of the Year selection committee.

Hoover believes her greatest contribution to STEM education lies in helping students see the practical ways that the concepts they learn apply to real life. No information has to be memorized when kids see how it works in the daily world, she says.

Late to the Classroom

The Girls in Engineering, Mathematics, and Science (GEMS) camp has been so popular that Hoover is considering running two sessions per summer.

“Whereas it might be easier to simply tell students facts or theories, getting them to uncover this knowledge for themselves, anchoring it to a new experience or their current knowledge, exemplifies teaching for me,” wrote Hoover in a letter submitted to the AFA award committee.

Nancy R. Hoover came to the profession of education in an atypical roundabout way. She did not become a teacher until she had spent years at other endeavors, including raising her two boys. She loved singing and the piano when in high school and once planned on becoming a music teacher. Thus she took few advanced math and science classes. When she arrived at college, however, she decided to major in forestry and wildlife. She says she cannot explain that choice, but that at the time it seemed like a good idea.

“What was I thinking?” Hoover reflects today.

Her university major forced her to take math and science classes she had avoided, in order to perfect such skills as surveying and calculating the number of board feet in a stand of trees. This exposure to science piqued her interest. Eventually she switched career goals and trained to become a medical laboratory technician. “I worked in a hospital lab and I really enjoyed it,” she says.

As part of her lab duties, Hoover worked with students from a local community college. She taught them some practical skills and in doing so realized how much she still had the old teaching bug. This time, however, she wanted to teach science, not music. Then she took a long break to start and raise a family. In the 1990s she went back to school to earn teaching degrees. In 1996 she began her career as a science instructor, teaching 8th grade in Chesterfield.

“I started teaching at the age of 40 with a lot of life experience under my belt,” Hoover says. It was a time when teaching was in transition, with Virginia instituting state standards of learning. Classes were emphasizing hands-on inquiry-based methods. Hoover embraced this change, seeing it as something that mirrored much of what she’d done in her own career to that point. She moved to Lloyd C. Bird High School as a physics instructor in 2000. She has been there ever since. Today she is the school’s Specialty Center Coordinator for the Governor’s Career and Technical Academy for Engineering Studies.

The academy is a specialty school within the larger high school. Students have to apply to get in. Sixty percent of its graduates go on to university engineering schools. Hoover still teaches two classes: independent study and junior engineering seminar.

“I am kind of like an uber department chair,” she says.

Hoover’s interaction with students is not bound by the hours of the classroom school day, however. Much of her impact comes from involvement with clubs, camps, and other extracurricular activities. Rocketry is only part of it. Hoover sponsors her school’s First Robotics and VEX Robotics teams.

First Robotics is a challenging activity where school teams of up to 10 compete head-to-head in various robotics tasks, as they would if they played varsity sports. VEX is “not as intense in terms of complexity. … It is something that kids can pretty much do on their own,” says Hoover.

For both robotics enterprises, Hoover has recruited local engineers who serve as mentors. She teaches the students involved to act like a corporation, drawing up bylaws, electing officers, and so forth. The students compose letters to firms soliciting financial and technical help.

She has established a training program for other Central Virginia teachers interested in helping their students with robotics programs. “Hoover is personally available as a resource for any area teacher who needs her assistance with robotics instruction,” says the letter from AFA Virginia’s Leigh Wade Chapter, nominating her for the teacher award.

Then there is GEMS—Girls in Engineering, Mathematics, and Science—a summer camp that Hoover established and continues to help run.

GEMS had its genesis in Hoover’s perception that the number of girls in her classes was not growing. The gender split in the school’s engineering program was about 80 to 20, male to female. “In general, in engineering, women are underrepresented,” says Hoover.

She responded by putting together a two-week program and lined up foundation and school system money to help pay for it. In her first year, 2010, she thought she would have to beat the bushes to get girls to apply. She was wrong. GEMS had more than 200 applicants for 28 spots. The first week, they did robotics. The second week, they did rocketry. Camp ended with a successful rocket launch.

I Just Really Like School

At summer camp, students spend a week on robotics, another on rocketry, and (here) end the session by launching their model rockets.

Most girls preferred the robotics, Hoover says. She is considering doing two one-week camps in coming years, instead of one two-week session, in order to double the number of girls who get a chance to participate. “This year we’re toying with maybe an aerospace theme,” she says.

There are some signs that GEMS is having an impact on the school year. Currently, applications for Hoover’s engineering program are up 10 percent. “We hope [GEMS] becomes a model we can replicate,” she says. “You don’t need upper body strength to do engineering. Girls bring a different skill set that just makes the team stronger.”

As for aerospace in general, Hoover designed and developed an aerospace curriculum to broaden her school’s engineering offerings. (An aerospace engineer now teaches that class, using Hoover’s lesson plans.) And she helped found yet another extracurricular effort: the first-ever AFA high school aerospace club. Working closely with the Leigh Wade Chapter, she and a colleague found space and funds for a dozen kids who are interested in the subject to meet twice a month.

“Their latest project is they are looking to Skype with a NASA engineer,” says Hoover.

The local AFA chapter members, Hoover says, “are amazing men and women. They are so supportive of education. They were looking for an avenue to get into the school and do something, and they have.”

Hoover always knew she wanted to earn a doctorate. After a decade of teaching, she went back and earned the degree, graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2009 with a Ph.D. in educational leadership.

“I just really like school,” she says.

If she has a professional goal, it may be to get as many of her students as possible to feel the same way.

“My favorite moments as a teacher are when kids enter my classroom and are excited to tell me how they recognized a physics concept we discussed in class in their everyday life. When that happens, I smile because I know I taught them—and they learned something,” Hoover wrote in her AFA National Teacher of the Year application.

She added that today, science and engineering teachers face the particular challenge of training students in fields of inquiry that themselves change year by year. In essence, teachers are preparing kids for future employment in fields that may not yet exist.

In this situation, teaching an accepted body of codified knowledge is not enough. Teachers must push students to learn for themselves.

“We must be about the business of teaching critical thinking, problem-solving, and effective communication to prepare them for their future,” Hoover wrote.

The nation may face daunting challenges, from energy needs to cyber security threats, but the answers to those tests are likely sitting in US classrooms today.

“Educators are developing and implementing effective STEM curricula in classrooms around the country, and it is imperative that the business and professional communities join educators in preparing our students for jobs, technology, and innovations that have not even been thought of yet.” Hoover concludes.

Peter Grier, a Washington, D.C., editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “The Highest Ranking,” appeared in March.