Designing a STEM activity: My co-op experience at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum

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The author works at a desk with tools, with a variety of colourful materials in front of him.
Nafis Faiyaz works at creating the first rover prototype.

When visiting museums, I have often taken part in hands-on activities to get a better sense of the historical significance of an exhibition. However, it was not until my three-week summer placement at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum that I truly understood the complex logistics behind such activities. It takes a whole lot of planning, testing, and paperwork to get a public program going smoothly! I got a taste of these steps this past summer; I had the chance to help create an engaging museum program designed to stimulate a lasting interest in the fascinating world of space technology.

Speaking of space technology, I have always had an interest in aviation and space. As a kid, I was fascinated with airplanes, rockets, and typically anything else that goes off the ground. After applying to the summer co-op program at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, I was thrilled to be invited to spend part of my summer at the museum. Linda Brand — the museum employee who acted as my supervisor — tasked me with developing a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) activity workshop. This was to be accomplished through building a mini rover from scratch. I was up for it, as I wanted to get more experience with engineering and innovating. During the training session I also met Jonathan Soliman, a fellow student who had experience with motors, gears, servers and other electronics.

6.	Two young men stand and look at a contraption that one of them is holding.

Nafis Faiyaz (left) and Jonathan Soliman, a volunteer at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

Building the first prototype

On my first day on the job, we got started right away. We went around the museum and gathered some materials. We put some motors into some foam board, then attached wheels that were made out of pool noodles. We then made some fine adjustments and fiddled with the wiring, and finally finished creating our first prototype rover. We set it loose on the museum floor and watched it speed away. There were quite a few onlookers that were interested in what we were up to; I think they found it interesting to see two young guys carrying a toy rover throughout the museum! I would say that our first prototype was relatively successful, and provided us with guidelines for the next one. Our goal was to imagine a future lunar rover, and understand the innovation of previous models.

3.	A hand-crafted car with colourful foam wheels sits on a desk.

The finished version of the second rover prototype.

Equipped with a solid sense of what we were making, we documented the entire process for our second prototype. We took pictures of each step and wrote a detailed explanation of what to do. I personally found it a bit challenging, as I’m not used to documenting every step but instead just going with the flow. I got used to it though, with Jonathan’s assistance. We also made some design changes along the way, it order to optimize the design. The result was a second prototype and a detailed step-by-step guide on how to create it.

Paperwork and budgeting

After the guide came the paperwork. In my opinion, this was the least fun part of the program development process! I generally like to be hands on, out in the field instead. But the paperwork was essential for running this STEM activity smoothly; it’s crucial to sell the idea and to get others on board. The same paperwork will be used to secure proper funding for the activity. We agreed that this public program should provide an informative, enjoyable visitor experience that meets both actual and anticipated needs. It was also decided that the program should educate and celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11, and encourage a greater appreciation of Canada’s aerospace heritage.

I sourced all the parts, and calculated their price for a single rover kit. Thankfully, it was below the limit of the cost price that we set earlier. We also added additional costs, such as promotions and guide salaries. Afterwards, we made various spreadsheets that showed our estimated costs and sales revenue over a period of time. The numbers were reasonable and by our calculations, we should be able to recover from our costs fairly quickly.

Nafis Faiyaz checks to make sure one of the large rovers is working properly.

Rovers and more rovers!

While I spent the majority of my time working with program development, I was also involved with the kids’ summer camps at the museum. Every morning, I confirmed that the camp guides had plugged in the batteries for the “rover mania” activity; this was a daily activity where the kids got to drive a large, remote-controlled rover through an obstacle course. These rovers were very different than the one that we were developing. Jonathan and I frequently repaired those rovers, dealing with broken wires and loose tires, for example. At other times, I ensured that all the materials were replenished for the indoor activities. This included taking notes, and helping to organize the space for the activities.

Jonathan and I also got started on another project — creating a remote-controlled model of the Canadarm out of electronic devices called servomotors, a bush motor, and PVC pipes. It was intended to be placed next to one of the daily activities, for visitors to try out. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to finish it.

Overall, I really enjoyed my co-op experience at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum; I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in science and engineering. The staff there are very kind and helpful; they allowed me to access their facilities and use the tools that I needed. They also talked to me about the level of schooling required to get to their positions. It was a great opportunity to experience the office lifestyle, participate in field testing and innovating — all while being near biplanes, jet fighters, and other fascinating aircraft.

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Nafis Faiyaz

Nafis Faiyaz is a co-op student at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, working under Interpretation Officer Linda Brand. He is also a high school student at Colonel By Secondary School.