Thomaston High School’s First Invention Convention Competitor Wins Top Awards

On Saturday, May 4th, about 1200 elementary through high school students competed at the University of Connecticut in Connecticut Invention Convention, a state-level STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) competition that requires students to design, build, and present an invention to a group of judges. This year was the first time the competition included high school students (grades 9-12). I had mentored middle school students in this competition in the past, so being new this year at Thomaston High School, I encouraged all of my students to enter, and I ended up with one of my top physics students, Alex, as a competitor. His invention was Highway Safety and Tire Reuse, a plan to use old tires to provide cushioning on cement Jersey barriers, thereby recycling the tires and improving the safety of the barriers. Alex researched how many old tires were discarded each year in our town, Thomaston, Connecticut, and how many miles of Jersey barriers there were, then he calculated how the tires could be collected and fitted to the barriers. His research included interviews with a local tire store and with the state highway department. He also designed a way for the tires to be cut in half and attached to the Jersey barriers. For Connecticut Invention Convention, he used cement to form a miniature scale model of a Jersey barrier onto which he wired small tires to show how the invention would look. Therefore, his invention was both a tangible product and a well thought out plan.

At the Connecticut Invention Convention awards ceremony, Alex earned three major awards. He earned the Recognized Inventor Award for being in the top 25% of competitors, the Frank J. Link Family award for solving a real world problem using an engineering design process, and a scholarship award for $108,000 to the University of Hartford’s School of Engineering for overall excellence. This last award would be contingent on his applying to and being accepted by the University of Hartford. I mentored Alex for the past five months in Invention Convention, first to compete at our local competition, then to compete at the state level, and I am very proud of his accomplishments. We will see if he qualifies to advance to the national level of Invention Convention. Here are photos of Alex at the Connecticut Invention Convention:

Alex with model of the Jersey barrier with tire cushioning and trifold display explaining his plan.
Connecticut Invention Convention in Gampel Pavilion, University of Connecticut at Storrs
Alex (on left) is one of four students to receive the Frank J. Link Family Award for problem solving
Alex (on left) is one of two high school students to receive a $108,000 scholarship to University of Hartford’s School of Engineering
Alex with his three awards from Connecticut Invention Convention and his physics teacher and Invention Convention mentor, Mr. Holmes, from Thomaston High School

Thomaston High School Starts the Science and Engineering Cohort Program

Thomaston High School has started a new Science and Engineering Cohort program where students apply in 9th grade to take a three-year course in 10th, 11th, and 12th grades in which they do increasingly independent science research and engineering design projects. The program is open to all 9th grade students at Thomaston, and the first group of students applied in February after hearing about it in a class assembly. A selection board met in early March, and ten students were chosen from among the applicants. The selection criteria were based on academic performance, behavior and leadership in the school and community, and motivation to be in the program. The selected students were: Kristen Foell, Olivia Grenier, Emilee Guillet, Hannah Lawlor, Sandra McDonald, Julia Puprriqi, Connor Riley, Zachary Stevenson, Riley Villone, and Dylan Walmsley. Bryan Holmes, a new science and math teacher at Thomaston and the author of this blog, is the leader and teacher/mentor for the Cohort.

To help these newly selected students understand the type of work that I expect of them within the next three years, I took them on two field trips recently. On March 9th, we went to the Connecticut Junior Science and Humanities Symposium at the UCONN Medical Center in Farmington. This annual competition features students who have done independent science research projects, produced a detailed poster on their projects, and in some cases presented their projects to a board of judges. We went as observers, not competitors, but the experience was invaluable. The Cohort students got to ask the competitors about their research projects, and we got to participate in several different events, such as a hands-on forensics exercise, a talk on the ethics of genomics, and a panel discussion by students in undergraduate and graduate science programs. All in all, this trip helped our students understand what it means to do science research and engineering design at a high level in high school. Here are photos from this field trip:


The second field trip we took was on March 13th to the Connecticut Science and Engineering Fair at Quinnipiac University. This was a more traditional event featuring projects done by students in grades 7 through 12. We went during a public viewing time when all of the projects were on display without the competitors present–in fact we had the entire Quinnipiac gymnasium where the projects were displayed all to ourselves. I advised the Cohort students to focus on the high school projects that involved areas of science or engineering in which they were interested. There were about 500 projects to see, so we took about an hour to review them. Once again, the students got a clear picture of the high level of science and engineering that is possible, even at the high school level. We also visited the Quinnipiac admissions office, got a short briefing, and then did a self guided tour, primarily of the new engineering department. Here are photos from this trip, plus a photo from the fair a couple years ago to give an overview of what it’s like:



Since the first Cohort class does not start until next fall, I will not see these students regularly, but we have already planned a spring luncheon, a June orientation session, and possibly a painting party to decorate our classroom. We are off to a great start!

Starting Integrated STEM Classes at Thomaston High School this Fall

I am beginning a new chapter in my teaching career by moving to Thomaston High School in Thomaston, CT this fall. June 21st was my last day at my latest teaching position at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering in Newington, CT. I started that program without knowing exactly how it would work out, as I was planning out an integrated STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum for the first time. I had advocated for such a program at Danbury High School and Ridgefield High School, but it did not work out at either. When the position at Newington was first advertised, I could hardly believe it – they wanted exactly what I had been advocating, an integrated STEM program that featured aerospace as its central theme! I was given the end of the 2014-2015 school year to write the curriculum, plan the facility, order equipment, and set up the academy program. The first students, 25 7th graders, entered the program in the fall of 2015. By the end of that year, we had established an outstanding program – I say “we” because my first attempts with these students needed a lot of adjustment, and they helped me quickly learn what worked and what didn’t. That first class was an amazing group of middle schoolers who I will always remember. The subsequent classes have also been outstanding. Now the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering is an award winning program that can continue with other teachers leading it.

As for starting a new position at Thomaston High School, I am very excited at the opportunities I will have there to take what I have learned about using an integrated STEM curriculum and applying it at a higher level. I will be teaching physics primarily, as well as math. In every class, I will connect what the students are learning in the physics and math classes. I will also giving them engineering design projects within each unit. Technology will be integrated into all classes as well. Students will not feel they are learning separate subjects, but instead will see how each subject contributes to their understanding of phenomena in the world around us. I also plan to start a STEM competition club where I will offer opportunities for students to compete in various STEM challenges. One competition I hope to coach is CyberPatriot, the nation’s largest cyber security challenge. I had very successful middle school teams in Newington, and I think Thomaston students would benefit from the experience. However, I will let the students pick the competitions they want to enter. I look forward to a great first year at Thomaston!

Exemplary Student Author – Alexandra DiGiacomo

A Familiar Fin, the children's book by Alexandra DiGiacomo promoting shark conservation
A Familiar Fin, the children’s book by Alexandra DiGiacomo promoting shark conservation

When I started a project last school year to mentor students how to write and self-publish their own books about science, I had no idea how the project would turn out. The goal was 500 or more book sales for each author, but that was to motivate them to achieve more than just vanity publishing sales. Now, just over one year later, I am especially impressed by one of these student authors, Alexandra DiGiacomo.  She not only published an outstanding children’s book about sharks, A Familiar Fin, but she also continues to market her book in the midst of her senior year in high school when most students are overwhelmed by all the activities. However, she is doing more than just book marketing, this young author is also successfully educating other youth about the importance of shark conservation. Check out her latest blog post, “What Sharks Can Do For You.”

Check Out These Resources for Mentoring Student Authors

Bryan Holmes, STEM Teacher

checklistIn this blog, I am sharing how I mentored a group of high school science students to write and publish books about their science research experiences in 2015.

The biggest challenge for a teacher who wants to start a new project is finding the time to gather all the necessary resources to plan it out. I like to plan thoroughly for any lesson, so building a lesson from scratch takes me a lot of time—usually longer than the lesson itself. Doing this project where I mentored a group of student authors took me hours and hours of planning and researching to gather what I needed to show them the process to follow, and I am sharing all these resources so you can use them. Click here to go straight to my website’s Resources page that has checklists, templates, and guides for mentoring student authors. My book, Creating Student Authors: How to Mentor Any Student to…

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STEAM Project Idea – Have your STEM Students Write a Book

Three AuthorsLooking for a new project to do with your students this fall? I have been a science and engineering teacher for ten years, and I am always looking for ways to improve my students’ learning experiences. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) has become a hot topic in education – we need more students majoring in STEM fields, according to many, including President Obama. Many also advocate that a richer STEM education is when Art is added to the list, making it STEAM. So how can a STEM teacher add some sort of art project to his or her curriculum? Many of us appreciate what art can bring to any classroom, but we don’t want our students’ effort to degrade into a cut-and-paste activity or something too simplistic. I piloted a project for the past year, and I think it is one option that can work well and is far from simplistic: Have your students write a book about their STEM experience.

I started the project in May 2014 by talking with a few outstanding science students who were each pursuing some sort of independent research. They were at the end of their sophomore year, and I asked them how they would like it if I guided them through the process to write and self-publish a book about their research experience. I had just self-published my first book, so I was familiar with all the steps required to bring a book to publication. They all agreed, and we started. We followed a Project Schedule I laid out. We also followed the steps of an author hoping to traditionally publish, writing to a target audience and going through several phases of editing and revising. We set a goal to publish by April 2015, and all three of the students that stayed on the project published in May or June of this year. You can see photos of the three authors and their books above — click HERE to see more.

The experience these students have gained by writing their own books is both broad and deep. Over the past year, along with actually writing a book, they have learned how to write a book proposal, work in a writing critique circle, coordinate with beta readers, copy editors, and cover designers, and blog about their book project. They also attended a writers conference, and they set up a booth to explain their project at our state science teachers annual conference. In the end, these students have learned a deep lesson in how to communicate about STEM. Along the way, I documented our steps and the checklists, templates, and other resources we used. All of this is available in my book: Creating Student Authors: How to Mentor Any Student to Be a Self-Published Author, available in ebook or paperback. Let me know if you plan to do this project in your school – I would be happy to help in any way I can, such as providing an introductory presentation to you and/or your students.

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Reflection on Project Mentoring Student Authors

I am wrapping up the project I started a year ago when I approached a small group of science students and asked them if they would like to learn to write a book. Each of them was doing a special research project, so they had ample material to write about. I had just finished my own first book, and I explained to them that I could show them the steps to write and self publish their own books. I ended up with three dedicated students, all of whom have now published their own books. Each is unique, and all are interesting:

Schwartz coverJen Schwartz published On the Right Track: A Student’s Memoir of Research, Advancement, and Holding on to Hope (Click title to buy this book)

Diorio coverJohn Diorio published Broadening the High School Experience:A Student’s Perspective on Independent Exploration (Click title to buy this book)

A Familiar Fin coverAlexandra DiGiacomo published A Familiar Fin (Click title to buy this book)



This was a pilot project for me, so I am assessing how it went and how to improve it when I do it again. What worked well were the overall plan I used, and getting the student authors to work together. Some things to improve:

  1. The students liked collaborating and sharing their work with one another, but the time was difficult to find to do this often–next time, I will plan more time for mutual editing and reviewing.
  2. The review process, especially around the final copy editing, broke down somewhat, and I had little idea how the students were doing. We needed a day, probably a weekend, when we could have all worked in a room and gone over formatting for publication.
  3. Book marketing, crucial to the success of any author, but especially self published authors, has tapered off with the end of the project. Successful authors will market their books before and especially after publication. Because we ended the project at the end of the school year, we could not easily work together to push marketing after publication. More planning and an agreement on what to do ahead of time would have helped.

Therefore, while the project was successful overall, I have many things I plan to do better next time. I documented our experience and made a step-by-step how to guide for teachers and mentors, Creating Student Authors: How to Mentor Any Student to Be a Self Published Author (click to purchase in paperback or ebook). I would love to hear from other teachers and mentors about your thoughts.