“Are great cities planned or do they emerge?”


Middle School Eagles hosted the Electricity Quest Exhibition Friday, exploring the question: “Are great cities planned or do they emerge?”




During Session Five Eagles explored over fifty theoretical, simulated and hands-on electricity challenges to earn the right to add buildings to their neighborhoods, and light them with a functioning electrical grid.



Along the way, middle schoolers dug deeply into voltage, current, resistance, Ohm’s law and designing circuits in series and parallel; the struggle between urban freedom fighter Jane Jacobs and uber city planner Robert Moses and and the tussles of inventors  Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison.


Plus, Eagles experimented with different forms of electrical generation – coal, gas, wind, solar and nuclear – and the costs and risks of each.


The Best 21st Century City would have the highest population, most amenities and lowest cost of electricity, leading to the highest per capita income and lowest cost of living per capita, thus the most prosperous city.  Of course, there were awards for the most beautiful and creative cities too, as well as the city with the most monuments to Electricity Heroes.


Sound difficult?  It gets worse.  Each building had different lighting requirements, therefore different voltage and current needs – and each wasted Watt meant a higher cost of living.


Since per capita income increased with population  – a real world truism – winning required combining your neighborhood with others, who often had a different voltage.  Not surprisingly, Eagles could be found wiring, testing and re-wiring as late as 9 pm some nights.


During the exhibition Eagles had a chance to present their “I have a dream for my city” persuasive speeches and field Electricity Bee questions to demonstrate their grasp of electrical theory.


Finally, the grand finale.  Once each city had been electrified for its required hour, a series of dice rolls determined  if anything unexpected would happen to power generation costs.  After all, sometimes the wind doesn’t blow; coal prices soar or solar power subsidies disappear.   Then one last test – would the city economics survive a rolling blackout or brownout?


It was a far from pristine exhibition, with much energy expended on last minute additions to the cities.  Nevertheless, the cities themselves spoke to how much had been learned. As one adult Electrical Engineer said: “They learned more in this quest about electricity than I did in college.”

Theory. Simulation.  Hands on contests.

Artistic freedom. Competition. Real world economics and uncertainly.

Whether the result of careful planning or emergent growth, or both – quite something to behold from the city builders of tomorrow.


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Ready for the job interview of your life?


“Ready for the job interview of your life?”  That’s the question Launchpadders faced during the Free Agent Quest Exhibition on Friday, fully knowing in the 21st Century there’s no such thing as a secure career path.

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Each Launchpadder interviewed with a successful entrepreneur, asking: “Will you give me a chance to prove myself?” in an industry and function he or she had chosen as a “next great adventure.”


All of this a culmination of six weeks of exploring gifts and passions, asking:

  • “Why am I here?”
  • “What’s my next big step?” and
  • “What will it take to get there?”


What mattered most?  Commitment.  Putting a stake in the ground for a passion and deliberate practice that will pay the bills and lead to a calling.


Launchpadders also pitched Hero’s Progress allegories, up to 20,000 word Pilgrim Progress-like tales of heroes who embark on a great adventure, only to encounter Victim, Distraction and Resistance, villains determined to thwart the quest and throw the hero into a fiery hell of eternal mediocrity.

Direction; passion; valuable individual skills plus a deep understanding of yourself. Add fun with friends, and that’s what Launchpad’s all about.

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How to Learn STEM – for Real


Teaching STEM  – Science, Technology; Engineering and Math – is a hot topic in traditional education, particularly when it comes to women.

So how do we teach STEM at Acton Academy?  We don’t.  Instead, Eagles learn it.


Session Five’s Electrical and Quantum Mechanics Quest has Eagles designing and constructing a neighborhood, complete with an electrical system, and then melding neighborhoods and electrical grids together into one giant city.


The most attractive city, with the lowest power cost, that can stay illuminated for at least one hour at the Exhibition wins.


In order to earn the right to buy wires and components with Eagle Bucks, Eagles have to solve complex circuit diagram problems and answer “Electricity Bee” questions about electromagnetic theory in front of the entire studio.


On Thursday, the last two teams were still trying to qualify.  One Eagle woman and then another, both convinced they could never “do science,” stepped up to the plate.  Everyone held their breath – and each got it right!

“How do you teach STEM?” isn’t the right question. As it turns out, neither is ““How do you learn STEM?”  The right question is: “Why do you learn STEM?”

Apparently you learn it so you can build your very own illuminated city on a hill.


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The Middle School Classical Physics Olympics

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Our Classical Physics Olympics was a smashing success, except perhaps for Mr. Egg, his family and friends, many of whom gave their lives in the pursuit of Science.


We started with a reading of Hero’s Progress, a personal allegory about the Hero’s Journey, plus three condensed Pixar-like story pitches from other Hero’s Progress allegories.

Next we moved to the Classical Olympics, taking Mr. Egg, his family and friends through six thrill seeking challenges, trying to keep them alive by practicing the three processes we’d learned:

  • Trial and error
  • Observation and Prediction (aka the Scientific Method) and
  • Theory and equation.

Our course, the real world is messy, and as the Eagles had learned over the last five weeks, errors between theory and reality can occur because of:

  • A misunderstanding of the problems, definitions or tools;
  • Inaccurate measurement
  • Inconsistent units; or
  • Other real world complications.

While Eagles had learned solving a large complex problem require:

  • Breaking the problem into smaller problems that are more easily solved;
  • Solving those smaller problems with the right tools; or
  • Recombining the solutions to address the more complex problem;

Mr. Egg wasn’t impressed.  He demanded an Eagle Buck insurance policy – if the Eagles were wrong, they’d literally pay for their mistakes.


The first Olympic event was balancing a lever, so delicately poised that even a smidgen of error meant Mr. Egg would be crushed.  Next Eagles had to guess which mass would counterbalance a pulley system – one miscalculation and Mr. Egg would pay.


Event Three was the rolling ball bobsled, where armed with Kinematic Equations, Eagles chose just the right height, for just the right potential energy to overcome rotational inertia and friction to propel a ball off the edge of the table into a tiny, waiting cup below.


Event Four was a Static Bungee test, designed to calm Mr. Egg’s nerves for Event Five, his dynamic bungee jump into Lake Acton.  One inch short and he’s miss his bucket goal of diving into a river unscathed; one inch long and he’d crack his head on the bottom.

Before the grand finale, Eagles gathered for lessons learned, where several showed not only a deep appreciation for the difficulty of real world science, but also an interest in science as a calling.


Tensions were high leading into Event Six,.  Teams One and Two were tied; Team Three close behind, Eagles had to calculate eggactly the right angle to shoot Mr. Egg to hit a small target more than 50 yards away.  Alas – Mr. Egg was not expected to survive this one.

After a hard-fought battle, Teams One and Two tied and split the Olympic cupcakes.  Team Three came in a respectable third place.  Mr. Egg?  Too gruesome to describe on a community blog.

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The New Media Quest closed with a photography exhibition hosted at Zach Theatre’s Skyline Lounge. Eagles were responsible for planning, shooting, editing and printing a series of three original images. Their chosen theme for the exhibition was “life.”

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Attending parents and guests could browse their work, ask Eagles about their creative process and bid on their favorite print in a silent auction.

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In the days leading up to the exhibition, the Eagles discussed the question: how will you know the exhibition is a success?

  • Was it satisfaction for creating great work?
  • Was it selling all of your prints?
  • Was it leaving the guests in awe?
  • Was it just having a good time?

By the end of the exhibition not a single print remained in the lounge, and each artists left with some extra spending money.  Art may be its own reward, but so is selling  something you’ve made with your own hands.

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The Illusions of Traditional Math Education


A recent late Middle School transfer recently described the difference between Math at Acton and a traditional school: “At my old school, we learned one type of problem at a time.  Once you knew how to repeat the steps, you did twenty homework problems on a worksheet that were exactly the same.”

He continued: “At Acton, Khan makes us do way more types of problems, and they come in different disguises, so you can’t repeat the same steps over and over again.   You have to get five in a row right to master a skill, but you see the steps in a different order or have to re-learn a problem you solved a long time ago.”

Khan Academy Math has over 1200 skills; traditional Math with a teacher can lead students through only a small subset of these.    So that’s the choice:  a fraction of the procedures learned by rote or hundreds of skills of different types, presented in different ways, learned peer to peer.

Certainly there’s a sense of satisfaction that comes from parroting procedures correctly, but neither Khan nor traditional schools seem to deliver deep critical thinking skills.  Clark Aldrich, author of Unschooling Rules and simulation guru, believes Khan Math is just a faster buggy whip — in a time when horseless carriages soon will drive themselves.

Aldrich believes there are only thirty or so important math concepts and that all can be mastered in Excel or Google Sheets.  That’s why we’ve engaged Aldrich to diagram the thirty challenges so we can incorporate them into Quests.

Of course, then Eagles and parents will have to decide to master Differential Calculus on Khan, or choose something most people will use in the real world.

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Mr. Egg’s Bucket List

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Mr. Egg made a bucket list of extreme sports challenges he wanted to try before he died.  High on Mr. Egg’s list is a bungee jump into a lake.

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You are in charge of Mr. Egg’s bungee and need to set the right parameters:  get it wrong and Mr. Egg dies.  Are you up to the test?


Confusing definitions. Dull equations.  Lame experiments.  Is it any wonder that many young people turn away from Science?  And yet, at some point the fun science demonstrations in elementary school must give way to more rigorous processes.

In the Middle School Classical Physics Quest we are experimenting with challenges and narratives — like Mr Egg’s – to drive the hard work needed to understand the natural laws and mathematics that describe how the real world works.

One fundamental question we’ve explored:

“Is it better to solve a problem using:

  • trial and error;
  • careful observation and prediction
  • or theories and formulas?”

Another question:

“If your theoretical calculations and the real world results differ, was the error caused by:

  • Improper unit conversions;
  • Sloppy measurement;
  • Choosing the wrong equations, or
  • A fundamental misunderstanding of the problem?”

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On Friday, pairs of Eagles predicted how long the bungee cord needed to be to dip Mr Egg’s head in Lake Acton without breaking his neck on the bottom.   A ten Eagle Buck life insurance policy made failures more expensive, so Eagles who mastered theories and equations were rewarded.

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Mr. Egg died many deaths, but his sacrifices in the name of science will be remembered by all!



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Launchpad’s New Media Quest


In the era of “selfies” and vines, what separates an excellent photo from a good one? Is lighting or composition more important? Would you rather hire someone with technical mastery or creative genius?

Is social media hurting social skills and communication development in young adults?

Does technology help you or end up wasting your time?

What happens when you spend time looking a captivating image? How does it change you? Is art even important? How has art influence our society? What has a deeper influence: fine art or applied art?

These are some of the questions we have been exploring in the New Media Quest this session.

Many weeks before the quest began, the Launchpad Eagles – and a select few from the Middle School – were promised two things: (1) that this quest would offer an authentic glimpse into life as a media professional and (2) they would work harder and have more fun than any other session. Every day there are creative deadlines, blogging prompts, and photography challenges. Eagles are coordinating with clients and working with talent on a weekly basis.

Launchpad has completely transformed into a production studio filled with cameras, lighting equipment, and editing bays.

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Last week the studio was fortunate enough to be visited by Jonno Rattman; a professional editorial photographer. Jonno was gracious enough to share his inspiring hero story with the Eagles and also some of his deepest insights into his creative process.

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Here is some work from the past week’s portrait and “forced perspective” challenges:

The pains of learning new software are concluding, and now the fun can begin with a rigorous new batch of projects!


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“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how:”- Friedrich Nietzsche

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Measurement is important, but if can dampen motivation.  Short term rewards quickly lose their power, and can be counterproductive.  To understand motivation, you must dig deeply into “why” someone wants to work hard, to pour his or her soul into an effort.

Last session Middle School Eagles were asked about a personal passion and why they worked so hard to pursue it:

  • Sophia works hard on the violin because she wants to become a violinist, someone who masters a complex skill but can never quite perfects it.
  • A second Sophia practices the guitar, because she wants to  effortlessly create something beautiful, whenever she pleases.
  • Jaiden wants to express his ideas through drawing, so he can change the lives of people, because he wants his life to make a difference.
  • Ridge plays soccer because he wants to be able to improve at many new experiences, so he has options in life, and never has to be under under someone else’s control.

Our young people have very deep “why’s” in their lives, passions that schools seldom touch – even ours.  Nietzsche believed in a “will to power” and a Superman who could dominate others.  Our Eagles long to be a different kind of superhero, one who changes the world by offering gifts through passion.


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Big Data Storms Middle School


Middle School Eagles have been immersed in a Data Visualization Quest, learning the questions, examples, tools and challenges needed to convert bits and bytes  into pictures and graphs to more easily create and discover truth in the world.


For the exhibition, Eagles:


Crafted a compelling question, gathered the data, cleaned up any errors or inconsistencies, chose the right display and took care to avoid “visualization traps” that could be misleading.


Delivered a “pitch” to convince someone to fund their project; and


Provided examples of the ways we track learning at Acton Academy.

What did we learn?  We learned that when discovering and creating truth, a picture may be worth a billion words.

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“I was in my pick up, driving down Manor road…”


Lee Walker, the first President of Dell Computers, formerly a NASA award winning PhD candidate in Physics and one of the top professors at the University of Texas, launched his Cambridge-style Oral Examination of the Launchpad Eagles:  “I was in my pick up, driving down Manor road, hurrying to get here when a lightning bug dropped from the overpass…”

For the last five weeks Launchpadders were immersed in a Physics MOOC (Massive-Open Online Course,) conducting hands on experiments, exploring the lives of Physics Heroes and learning to think with the childlike curiosity of Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman.

Yes, being able to quote Newton’s Laws of Motion or the Laws of Thermodynamics and  F=MA matter, but far more important are having the curiosity and disciplined thought processes of a world class physicist.


For 90 minutes Walker asked probing questions about the force of his “2,000 kg truck accelerating at 3 m/s*s” impacting a lightning bug with “1/1000th of the mass,” weaving a fanciful tale Feynman would have enjoyed, ranging from gravity, to electromagnetism to the strong and weak nuclear forces to Quantum Physics and the Theory of Relativity. Eagles moved  between childlike questions of their own, using equations to solve problems, describing the discoveries of Physics heroes, reliving previous experiments and exploring analogies.

In the end it was simply great fun for the audience, witnessing a mix of structured and unstructured exploration of the wonders of the universe.


Launchpadders — shown here in a “thank you” photo sent to Walker —  next will create a  Next Big Thing,  a deep dive into an area of Physics we hope will become a personal passion.

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Science: It’s Harder than it Looks

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Repeating ancient experiments can be boring – unless you do it with a sense of wonder about the devices and thought experiments the ancients were able to create.

It also helps to do a little real data gathering from time to time.  It’s much harder to drop two balls “at the exact same time” than it looks.  Especially if you were Galileo measuring with a water clock, long before the invention of Iphones.

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Earning the Ranch Trip


Should celebrations be enjoyed by the entire Tribe, regardless of effort or reserved for those who earn them?  Are celebrations a time for play or rest and reflection?

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This week sixteen of our thirty one Middle Schoolers traveled to a ranch for high spirited games, fellowship and fireside smores.  We celebrated a new dawn with gratitude and new commitments.

The requirements for earning the trip were set so all could earn them, but five or six Eagles stumbled or chose not to invest enough effort.  Many more stayed back to work on Children’s Business Fair ventures, too busy to take time off for fun and games.

Those who made the trip had great fun; but we missed those not present.




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To the Moon!


Imagine you want to send a rocket to the moon, which is located directly overhead, and because rocket fuel is expensive, you want to do so with as little energy as possible. 

 Would you fire the rocket “straight up” or at an angle towards the horizon?  If at an angle, what angle requires the least amount of fuel?

Sound like an easy problem?  It’s not.   In Launchpad, some of us thought we had the “answer” several times, but this just led to more Richard Feynman-like questions.

In fact, we have a hunch that a thorough explanation of this query will reveal why Einstein’s Theory of Relativity clashes with Newtonian Physics, yet they are both right.

Real Science requires childlike curiosity and sustained effort.  Far more difficult than memorizing answers for an AP test, but far more rewarding and life giving too.



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Hope for the Future: The Children’s Business Fair


On a perfect autumn day, over two hundred young entrepreneurs and thousands of visitors gathered for the Acton Children’s Business Fair and  the Rising Entrepreneur’s Fair (for older teens).

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Some days it’s easy to despair over the state of the world.  Then you realize the incredible wealth of talent soon to be unleashed, and that with the freedom to create, a few will always rise to rescue the many.

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Learning Arcs and Lessons Learned


Traditional schools have semesters, textbooks and standardized tests; Acton Academy offers Learning Arcs, real world challenges and lessons learned instead.

What is a Learning Arc?  It’s action packed sequence of “learning by doing;” a series of challenges, launched with a bit of mystery; linked by compelling narrative; stuffed full of real world puzzles,  challenges and dilemmas;, culminating with a public exhibition and followed by reflection and “lessons learned.”

We recently completed the Entrepreneurship Archetype Quest in the Middle School Studio.  Here are one twelve year old Eagle’s lessons learned, in her own words:

Lessons learned:

  1. If you take everything slowly and carefully, making it your best work you will get loads farther than if you just rush through it thinking “They’re only deliverables.” Slow and steady wins the race. I will improve to make it “fast and steady wins the race.”
  2. It is important to watch out for competitors. If you ignore them, they are likely to keep lowering their prices until they steal away many of your customers. If they keep lowering their prices, you might want to lower yours, because it will get you more customers. But be careful; if you price below your variable costs, you will bleed cash with every sale.  Watch out for price battles because they can get intense!
  3. Sometimes pricing high and skimming the market is better than pricing low and penetrating. When you price high people think that your product is worth more. If you sell wands for a few cents each people will think they are low quality. If you sell them for $5 or so people may think they are high quality, even if they are  not.
  4. It is never too early to be an entrepreneur. If you try your best, you can make things and sell them and actually make money. You could become an entrepreneur.
  5. Sometimes you have to take risks. If you play it safe every time you will have less fun and may make less money. In the girl’s bathroom in the MS, there is a picture that says “If you find a path with no obstacles, it probably won’t lead anywhere.”In my first Children’s Business Fair, I had a booth called Spooky Sacks. I was in it with my brother and we were selling Trick-or-Treating bags. We had too many variable costs and not enough customers. The only person who bought our product was one man who did it just to be nice. We lost $80. My parents were nice enough to share the loss with us. Sometimes you shouldn’t take too many risks.

If you are an entrepreneur, you will recognize priceless truths in these reflections; learned the hard way and deeply embedded through trial and error.

Semesters, textbooks and standardized tests are no match for Learning Arcs, real world challenges and lessons learned, because a soulless bureaucracy is no substitute for a fulfilling Hero’s Journey.



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Out into the Real World of Entrepreneurship


At the end of each exhibition, we take time to reflect and celebrate.  As part of our celebration, Launchpadders on Friday toured the Capital Factory, an entrepreneurial incubator.


Afterwards, a Capital Factory Director wrote: “And I was just talking to my husband about you and your students. The CF team of entrepreneurs truly enjoyed their time with you. In fact, they were blown away by them … even remarking that they were the most poised and intelligent high school students they had met yet.”


Just wait until we unleash them on the real world!

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The Entrepreneurial Archetype Quest Exhibition


On Thursday our Middle School and Launchpad Eagles welcomed parents and visitors to the Entrepreneurial Archetype Quest Exhibition, where our guests would decide which business ventures would qualify for the Austin Acton Children’s Business Fair (for pre-teens) and Rising Entrepreneur’s Business Fair (for teens) set for October 22nd.

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As usual before an exhibition, Eagles were hard at work, with many continuing rehearsals and final preparations far past normal bedtimes on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.


On Thursday afternoon, the event was entirely run by Middle Schoolers and Launchpadders, beginning with a welcome and the sharing of Hero Stories crafted by Eagles after interviewing their favorite entrepreneurs.

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Next visitors were invited to tour each Eagle’s booth, to hear a pitch for an entrepreneurial venture, including the customer’s need, Unit Economics and preferred Entrepreneurial Archetype.

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A panel of successful Entrepreneurial Sharks listened to pitches and grilled rising entrepreneurs about their businesses.

We concluded with final lessons learned from guests and Eagles, and announcing the winners of the Business Fair booths.

Thanks to over twenty difficult challenges, ranging from Unit Economics to trading Red Paper Clips to running an assembly line to make sandwiches for the homeless, our budding Eagle entrepreneurs are now ready to take on the business world.



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The Yacker Tracker


Welcome to the Yacker Tracker, an invaluable tool allows Middle School Council to ask everyone in the studio for an Eagle Buck when the noise exceeds a preset decibel level.

Draconian?  Perhaps. But the Middle School Eagles would prefer using the Yacker Tracker to quiet the studio than to be red carded (asked for 32 Eagle Bucks) by the Elementary Studio downstairs.

No one wants to answer to Elementary Overlords.

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Deliberate Practice


We need to fortify the habit of Deliberate Practice at Acton Academy, the serious dedication it takes to hone a skill, through repeated and measured trials, under expert instruction, with serious reflection.


We hope soon to be working with Anders Erricsson, the intellectual father of Deliberate Practice and famous for “10,000 hours to mastery.”

As a prelude, during a recent Acton Parent’s meeting we focused on GRIT, the courage and dedication it takes to cultivate perseverance.  At the end of the session, nineteen parents pledged to take on a skill to deliberately practice for the fall, from mediation to tennis to baking pies.

Our children may not listen to what we say, but they do watch what we do.  So if we want them to become grittier, we must first become grittier ourselves.

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Time is relative in our studios


Our Elementary Eagles frequently work hard, but curiosity and exploration are more important to us in early years.  In Middle School, the work becomes far more serious.

One Eagle, who recently moved from the Elementary to Middle School studio put it this way: “In the Elementary Studio, often I felt I was killing time. In Middle School, I have to cling tightly to time, or it will slip away and I won’t have created anything of value.”

An eloquent description of the act of growing up.

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Would you dare haggle with an Asset Fox?



Week Four of the Entrepreneurship Quest was action packed.


Eagles played the Red Paper Clip trading game; took on the Rich Uncle Valuation challenge and competed in an MIT Negotiating Role Play, testing out their skills as Asset Foxes.

By Friday, it was time for a some real world competition.

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Launchpadders took on the Acton MBA’s in a no-holds-barred eighty minute Socratic discussion of the Harvard Business School Caribbean Café case study, emerging victorious in a closely matched battle.

No mean feat, since for eight of the last eleven years the Princeton Review has named Acton’s students as The Most Competitive MBA’s on the planet.

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Friday afternoon, Launchpadders and Middle Schoolers descended on Austin storekeepers, haggling even the most hidebound merchants with “Is that the best you can do?” and “Are you sure that’s the best you can do?” until we had secured cumulative discounts of more than 40%.  Few Eagles are likely to ever pay retail again!

Next week – it’s time for the Exhibition.

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Forming the Tribe: Fun, Hard Work and Commitment


A secret of Acton Academy:  first we make learning fun.

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Then we make Acton Academy a place where you are known and surrounded by people you like and admire, with group activities designed to challenge, inspire and bond – like each Eagle making a Hero Board about his or her life.

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Then we each promise to embark on a Hero’s Journey, each dedicated to finding a calling that will change the world – that means hard work is a must.

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Finally, Eagles commit to each other, signing the contracts and covenants that they have drafted, debated, revised and ratified.


Our Eagles are as serious about their promises as our Founding Fathers who pledged their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor.”  These commitments bind us and serve as guardrails  for our Learner Driven Community.

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Are you a Bootstrap Tortoise; an Asset Fox or an MBA Hare?


This year’s Overarching Question asks: Is the truth discovered or created?

Our Session One Entrepreneurship Quest echoes the Overarching Question by asking: Are great opportunities discovered or created?

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Just as importantly, we ask: “Does your entrepreneurial archetype, formed by your gifts, passions and personality, best fit a Bootstrap Tortoise (building businesses one customer at a time;) an Asset Fox (trading assets) or an MBA Hare (chasing the latest hot deal)?

The Quest started with The Trading Game, an action packed, hands on simulation where teams competed not only to win, but to discover which archetype was most appealing for each individual entrepreneur.


We also launched this session’s Entrepreneurship Genre project, where each Eagle will choose an entrepreneurial role model, request an interview and write a Hero Story about his or her role model’s life.

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In Week Two, Eagles shifted to learning how to sell, playing Acton MBA simulations and creating and practicing a sales pitch for their Children’s Business Fair venture.  The winners of the pitch contest enjoyed lunch at El Chilito, but only after pitching a few customers at the restaurant.

A personal favorite opening line, from an Eagle who will sell voodoo dolls at the Children’s Business Fair: “Have you ever disliked someone so much that you wanted to stick him with a pin?” (Spoiler alert – the pitch worked!)


In Week Three, we wrapped up our Bootstrap Tortoise challenges playing the Acton MBA simulation Galactic Zappers and then competing to make sandwiches for the homeless, while learning valuable lessons about throughput, cycle times, bottlenecks and Unit Economics.  (Eagles also learned a valuable lesson about empathy and customer service when they learned the sandwiches were really their lunches and that you must never serve anything to a customer you wouldn’t serve yourself!)

Next week we move on the Asset Fox challenges, as Launchpadders also prepare to take on the Acton MBA’s in a winner-take-all Socratic discussion.

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Launching the Year: Is the Truth Discovered or Created?


So what’s the first step on a Hero’s Journey?

Today we started with Acton Academy’s mission: to inspire each person who enters our doors to find a calling that will change the world.    Moments later, our Middle Schoolers and Launchpadders leaped into a flurry of tribe building and entrepreneurial activities.

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Eagles spent much of the morning questioning each other, probing about heroes, gifts and dreams, simultaneously building bonds of friendship as they practiced interviewing skills they’ll need to write a Hero Story about an entrepreneurial role model for this session’s Genre Challenge.

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In the afternoon, Middle School and Launchpad Eagles dove into the Trading Game, the hands-on, action packed contest that launched the Entrepreneurship Quest, and served as a first step to discovering if they are Bootstrap Tortoises, Asset Foxes or an MBA Hares.

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All of this is preparing us to explore this year’s Overarching Question: Is the truth discovered or created? through seven Quests, including forays into Entrepreneurship; Classical and Quantum Physics; Data Visualization; the McCarthy Trial; Programming and Robotics; Art and more.

And to think – this is only Day One!

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Standardized tests are a scourge, yet….

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Sadly, public school students in Texas spend a reported 45 of their 180 days each year in standardized tests.  At Acton Academy, we prefer to equip and inspire Eagles to learn 21st Century Skills instead.

Still, once a year we subject Eagles to a half day of SAT10 (Stanford Achievement Test) testing, just to make sure they are learning the basics.

This year, Eagles scored an average of 3.5 grade levels ahead of age in Reading; 4.5 grade levels ahead of age in Language Arts and 4.6 grade levels ahead of age in Math.

Approximately seventy percent of middle school and Launchpad Eagles ranked at a Post-High-School (College) level in Language Arts and Math, and almost half ranked at a Post-High-School (College) level in Reading, Language Arts and Math.

Standardized tests aren’t very important.   But it is reassuring to know our Eagles score well, even if we don’t spend one minute “teaching to the test.”

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Death, Taxes and Launchpad Eagles


More young people ages 18-35 live with their parents than at any other time in modern history.  Over half of post-college aged adults now live with a family member, rather than  living independently.  Sadly, many college graduates are directionless, saddled with large loans and over half are underemployed.  

Not much is certain beyond death and taxes.  But here’s a good bet:  Ten years from now you’ll be hard pressed to find an Acton Academy Launchpadder living on a parent’s couch, lacking grit, skills or direction.


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Overheard in the Grocery Store Check Out Line


Overheard and reported by an Acton Academy parent:

Two cute, young, fun-looking traditional teachers were in front of me in the grocery store check-out line, talking about how busy the end of year was and lamenting the torture of standardized tests.

Then one said: “Oh my god. I didn’t even read their final research papers. I just skimmed over them. If they had as much as an intro and summary, it was good enough for me.”

 Then they both laughed. Such an injustice to the young people who had worked hard.

At Acton Academy, every writing challenged is peer reviewed.  In most cases with a detailed critique; in many cases, posted on the wall for all to see.

Here’s the point.  Of course everyone would prefer having a warm, caring English teacher, who nurtures each student; writes like Hemingway and could offer Tolstoy a helpful literary critique.  But that’s not reality.

The truth is, Acton’s transparency and peer critiques offer far more coaching and motivation than in any traditional model, with a far lower likelihood of the outright fraud that no one even bothered to read your thesis before assigning an arbitrary letter grade.

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Bringing the Tribe Back Together

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Groups of humans split quickly into we/them factions that can spiral downwards into personal attacks, and eventually civil war.

During the Politics and Economics Quest, Eagles argued passionately for different causes, on occasion leading to hurt feelings.  Because we are a tribe, not a group, the end of the session meant it was time to come together by:

  • Finding a Common Enemy;
  • Pursuing a Common Mission;
  • Bringing leaders together for Conflict Resolution, where necessary; and
  • Examining our own psychological shadows, to curb the unhealthy projections that drive us apart, so we each rediscover deeply buried parts of ourselves.


Reconciliation and re-commitment.  All part of the Hero’s Journey.


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Our Politics and Economics Quest Exhibition

Tension built as the Libertarian Party, Demo-Green-Surprise Party and independents assembled for a Battle Royal of a political convention.

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Candidates for Executive Office unleashed stump speeches to persuade Elementary, Middle School and Launchpad Eagles to support their campaigns.

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Legislators gave floor speeches in an attempt to pass important legislation for the Acton Academy studios and Acton’s worldwide…..

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…. while Supreme Court Justices heard oral arguments.

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We celebrated important lessons learned about personal political principles, powerful tools and political Kryptonite (corrupting influences), all combined into a toolkit Eagles could use to change the world.   Eagles also showcased White Papers, Editorials and Hero Stories written as part of the quest.

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In the end, the Libertarian Party prevailed, proving if nothing else that Acton Academy  is the only place in the world Libertarians can win an election.  Or at least until the Demo-Greens-Surprise party regroups for the next election.

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Propaganda or Spreading Truth?


During the Politics and Economics Quest, Eagles earned the right to watch movies such as 2018, a movie based on by Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron


and Poverty Inc. by the Acton Institute.

Afterwards, Eagles circled up for a Socratic Discussion to debate the power of story to communicate political truths as well as political propaganda.  Of course, the real trick is to tell one from the other.


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The Federal Reserve, Depression and Hyper-Inflation


The Chair of the Federal Reserve is one of the most powerful people in the world, and one of the President’s most important appointments.


The Great Depression. Unemployed men queued outside a soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone. The storefront sign reads 'Free Soup, Coffee and Doughnuts for the Unemployed.' Chicago, 1930s (Newscom TagID: evhistorypix027753.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]

As part of the Politics and Economics Quest, Eagles explored Keynesian and Monetarist theories before playing a powerful Inflation Simulation to experience how the Federal Reserve and monetary policy impact economic booms and busts.

Then Eagles had to stand in the shoes of the President of the United States, making difficult economic and political decisions during the 2008 Economic Crisis.

Would the Eagles have approved a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street?  Not likely.

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Political Tools, Well Used


Traditional students study the three branches of government.  At Acton Academy, Middle School and Launchpad Eagles make learning about governing by running a real campaign.

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Eagles not only wrote and delivered campaign stump speeches, legislative floor speeches and oral arguments for the Supreme Court, but also polled and canvased Elementary Eagles to convince them to register and vote in the Acton Academy election – a task almost as difficult as motivating the average American.


As the battle between the Libertarian and Demo-Green party grew intense, some Eagles started dressing up each day in order to make a better impression on voters.

If only an Eagle would consider running for President in 2016.

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Going to War; Paying the Price

Fifteen intense Socratic discussions have put Launchpad and Middle School Eagles in the shoes of a political leader facing a difficult decision.   Perhaps the most difficult of all decisions for a leader is to order American troops into harm’s way.


Eagles investigated four frameworks that couldhelp a President decide whether or not to commit troops:

  • The Just War Doctrine
  • Vital Interests
  • Idealism and the Spread of Democracy
  • Isolationism

Each Eagle dug deeply into one or more of the following wars to decide if he or she would have committed troops as President:

  • Korean
  • Bosnian
  • Vietnam
  • Iraq I
  • Iraq II


Then we assembled for an intense simulation where Eagles would take turns acting as the President in a time of war.  Before we started, we watched scenes from Saving Private Ryan to drive home that war is not a video game.   Once the discussion started, in real time new information arrived in the Situation Room and demanded to be included.   The tension kept rising, but in the end, the President had to make a decision.


As one Eagle soberly commented afterwards: “It is a heavy responsibility.  Someone is going to die, and as President, you have to decide who it will be.  And then you must explain to a mother, father, husband, wife or child why you asked their loved one to make the ultimate sacrifice.”

Quests at Acton Academy are not an academic exercise.  Quests are preparation for real world decision, and the heavy burdens it places on a leader.




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Experiments, Simulations and Role Plays


The Politics and Economics Quest featured more than ten economic and political experiments, simulations and role plays, including the Lord of the Flies, Tragedy of the Commons and The Power Game.


Soon, Eagles were finding an executing their own behavioral experiments to prove a point, including the Privilege I and Privilege II experiments shown above to drive home the need for Affirmative Action, as well as a counterpoint M&M Incentives Game to demonstrate the impact of high marginal tax rates on economic growth.

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Sheep, Wolves, Sheepdogs and Shepherds


According to Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman there are three types of people in the world:

  • Sheep who go about their business,
  • Wolves who feed on the sheep; and
  • The Sheepdog who protects the flock.

At Acton Academy, we would add Shepherds, the countless servant leaders like Gandhi, King and Borlaug who pursue individual callings that strengthen the fabric of society.

Of course, people are not animals; wolves and the need for protective violence are thankfully rare; and we live in a society where you can enjoy the fruits of freedom without participating in the political or civic arenas.

Nevertheless, in the midst of our Political and Economic Quest, we should never forget that it is the sacrificial love of Sheepdog and Shepherd Heroes who keep our fear of wolves at bay.

Acton Academy.  No sheep allowed.


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Session Six Civilization: The Big Questions of Politics and Economics


Our overarching question for the year is: Must a hero conquer fear to find true love?

This session, the more specific question we are exploring in the Politics and Economics Quest:  Must a hero conquer fear of the public square, to find a true love of country, community and self?

Given this goal, our Socratic discussions in Civilization have been centered around the big questions in politics and economics:

  • Is government’s primary role to protect our individual rights or create a more prosperous and just world?
  • Should we fear anarchy or tyranny more?
  • Who should decide how society should be structured: elites or a strong man; the mob and pure democracy or free individuals making individual choices?
  • Was Hamilton right about centralizing power or Jefferson right about dispersing it? Who would Madison have agreed with more?
  • What happens when governments and markets fail?

Twice each week, Eagles do an hour or more of original research, looking both historical battles and current day dilemmas, followed by a twenty minute Socratic discussion led by an Eagle.

All of this with the underlying question: How will you change the world through political or economic action, without having your morals and principles corrupted by the process?

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What is your Political Kryptonite?


One of the key themes of the Politics and Economics Quest is the issue of personal corruption.

As James Madison wrote in Federalist 51:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.

As our Eagles struggle for their party to win the Politics and Economics Quest, they will have to measure principle against compromise, and obeying party leaders versus serving constituents versus staying true to their conscience.  Just like in the real world, we expect them to be tempted.

What will be the greatest temptation:

  • Unbridled competition;
  • Money;
  • Power;
  • Fame;
  • Something else?

Perhaps the most important task for anyone entering the public arena is to discover his or her political kryptonite – the substance for which you might unwittingly trade your freedom and soul.

So what is your political kryptonite?

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Finding a Cause that Matters to You


How do you discover, explore and sharpen (or change) your core political beliefs, those bedrock principles that form your actions in the public square?  Is it best to dive into ancient texts or current day battles?  To wax philosophical or enter into the fray?

At Acton Academy, we decided to start with conflicts in the studio that matter to Eagles.

For example:

  • Should everyone be taxed an equal number of Eagle Bucks for supplies or should those who earn more Eagle Bucks pay a larger share?
  • Should freedom of speech, press and association be unlimited for Acton Eagles or restricted for the good of the community?
  • Should all possibility of embarrassment be stricken from Acton or do serious consequences deter future bad acts?

In the Politics and Economics Quest, we started with nineteen controversial decisions that could impact the  our community.   Each Eagle then took a test to identify his or her core political principles, and selected five top Acton Personal Political Causes.

We then matched up each Eagles with one side or another of a Personal Cause, while also asking Eagles to identify a real world controversy where the same principle applied. For example: environmental protection, gun rights or freedom of religion.

Eagles will research and write white papers and editorials on the real world issues, and use real world facts and examples to argue for changes in Acton governance during the Exhibition.

The common link between the Acton studio issue and the real world? A firmly held political principle.  In a way, the Politics and Economic Quest is a test of whether each Eagle will stand by his or her deepest principles, or sell out for power, fame, popularity or money.

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Our Eagles are not normal


Two recent experiments suggest our Elementary, Middle School and Launchpad Eagles are several standard deviations away from normal.

In the Politics and Economics Quest, we have been playing a series of role plays and hands-on games to raise important political and economic questions:

  • The Lord of the Flies Game – What happens when anarchy rules?
  • The Power Game and Telephone – How do hierarchy, status and rigid rules make it difficult to organize work and treat others with respect?
  • The Trading and Self Organizing Games: How can free choice and prices add value in daily life and make it easier to accomplish common goals? and finally
  • The Tragedy of the Commons; Free Rider and Bribery Games: Will markets and society fail if our citizens lack character?

The Free Rider game is a classic economic experiment.  In thousands of trials, around the world, humans fail to contribute their fair share to a group activity – and especially so when guaranteed anonymity.

Typically, 50 percent of a population will free ride when first offered a chance, and 100 percent of participants will free ride once they understand that others will defect.

We expected similar results from the Middle School and Launchpad Eagles, who are as rational as any group.  To our surprise, the free riding didn’t occur.  Only one Eagle out of fifteen failed to put in his is her fair share – a 93.3% responsibility rate versus 50% for the general population.

On the same day, Elementary Eagles took the famous Marshmallow Test to measure their ability to defer gratification, a skill with a strong correlation to future success.

In thousands of experiments, 30 percent or fewer of elementary aged students will postpone eating a marshmallow immediately in return for receiving two marshmallows later.  For our Elementary Eagles, forty out of forty young heroes chose to wait for the two marshmallow reward.

Our learning philosophy at Acton Academy is simple:

  • The right questions and analysis lead to the right decisions;
  • The right decisions become the right habits;
  • The right habits shape character; and
  • Character determines destiny.

Our Eagles are far from normal, in a very good way.


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Politics, Religion and Economics in the Public Square


Becoming a citizen who changes the world through political or economic action requires a laser sharp understanding of fundamental principles and definitions – and perhaps an instinctive refusal to allow others to define those principles and definitions for us.

“Politics” comes from the Greek word politikos, from politēs ‘citizen’ and polis ‘city.’  Politics isn’t limited to corrupt acts plotted in smoke filled rooms, but more fundamentally is how people organize to change society.

“Religion” comes from a Latin derivation of ligare to ‘bind’ and ‘connect’ and defines the beliefs and practices we value, whether they include supernatural forces or not.

For most of history, political and religious forces were intertwined  – the King and the Pope – decided how society was organized and the common man was bound, starting with power emanating from the top.

The world shifted when in the late nineteenth century, Karl Marx separated religion from politics and Adam Smith championed the invisible hand – free choice guided by market prices. “Economics” emerged as an alternative to hierarchical power as a way to organize society, even as values were driven from the public square.

Politics, religion and economics have been battling ever since, in America within a competitive political framework constructed by our Founding Fathers, who believed a free and virtuous citizenry through self-governance could build a nation based on ideas and principles.

Why do these definitions matter?  Because in order to change the world, Eagles need to understand the real battles aren’t necessarily about elections or laws, but about principles and ideas.   Debates about how society should be organized – either by the firm hand of government or the invisible hand of economics –then become clearer.

We see that values matter too, and that religion — understood as the commitments and beliefs that unite us as a nation, rather than superstitions that divide us into warring tribes – must be a part of the debate, and debated with judgment and tolerance.

On such definitions do the commitments and covenants of flawed human beings rest, as well as the future of the richest, most powerful and fairest nation on earth.

That’s why it’s important for the young women and men who will lead it to start their trials now.

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The Politics and Economics Quest

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Five weeks from now, Middle School and Launchpad Eagles will gather for a political convention to deliver stump speeches, debate legislation and argue in front of a panel of Supreme Court Justices.

Battles will take place on the federal, state and local level as Eagles seek to make their communities a better place to live, work and raise healthy families.  Not only will Eagles master tools like focus groups, polls and canvassing, they’ll also have to convince Elementary Eagles to register and vote, even if like most Americans they are easily distracted and too busy to engage.

Where will the energy come from for all of this?  First, from a series of games and role plays – like the Lord of the Flies contest – that demonstrate the natural consequences of economic and political choices.  And finally, from organizing political parties, for the party with the most wins in Executive branch elections; passing laws and winning court cases wins the P&E Quest.

Let the games begin!

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Narrowly Defined Challenges or Open Ended Problems?


Do Eagles learn more from narrowly defined challenges or open ended problems?

Narrowly defined challenges like: “What is the square root of 2?” or “Write a balanced chemical equation for the reaction of acetic acid and water” are simple to design and evaluate.  A series of narrowly defined challenges give Eagles – and especially Type A Eagles and parents — a sense of accomplishment as SMART goals and Weekly Points accumulate like clockwork.  And, of course, there is value in mastering a process.

Open ended problems, like: “How can you mix these elements to create a rocket fuel that will propel your vehicle over four meters in height, with the lowest cost per meter gained?” are much more challenging.   There’s no prescribed process.  Well-worn theories work better in textbooks than in the real world. Team members clash given the time pressure and ambiguity.  Plus, it’s harder to measure progress; and not everyone learns at the same pace.

Avoiding open ended problems means not having to convince Eagles they understand  complex subjects far more deeply than traditional students, who often are capable of little more than  regurgitating answers for an AP test.

Narrow challenges are better than open ended problems in every way except one:  No one in the real world will you pay you to solve narrowly defined challenges more easily executed by an algorithm. 

If our Eagles want to change the world, they will need to solve messy, open ended problems requiring complex collaboration. So brace yourself for more narrowly defined challenges and open ended questions, as we equip Eagles to embrace the beauty and frustration of open ended creativity.


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Prototyping Happiness, Satisfaction and Fulfillment

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After weeks of devouring Positive Psychology Deep Books, TED talks and experiments, Launchpadders on Friday pitched Middle School Eagles to try one of two prototype programs designed as part of the Positive Psychology Quest.

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The first program — Connecting with your Superhero — offers 30 days of activities and challenges to strengthen and deepen relationships delivered by an I-Phone-like App.   As they advance, middle schoolers earn points to construct avatars that reveal the superhero inside.

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The second program — Hues of Happiness — offers  Positive Psychology activities, QR codes, videos, nightly journalling and hidden images revealed through an adult coloring book to help rescue middle choolers from  adolescent funks and bad moods.

Can science help young people find more happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment?  Thanks to the hard work of the two Launchpad teams, we now have twenty five middle schoolers committed to find out during Session Six.

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The Chemistry and Rocket Quest Grand Finale

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On Friday, over twenty five Rocket Heroes from Wernher von Braun to Neil Armstrong to Elon Musk welcomed visitors to our Chemistry and Rocket Quest Exhibition.

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We started with readings from the Eagles’ Flash Science Fiction stories and continued with a judging of space station, launchpad and rocket designs for the multi-billion dollar Space X contract, with points awarded for virtual drawings, electrical efficiency, scientific documentation and other categories.

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Then it was time for the big event  – the final rocket launches, each featuring a top secret custom-engineered rocket fuel formula, designed to propel rockets as high as possible, with exactly a ten second safety delay and a completely neutral pH effluent.


Just as in the real world, some launches were flawless; others were less successful.  The crowd pulsed with ohhs and ahhs that would have made NASA proud, as some rockets soared over twenty five hundred feet (OK, in reality, twenty five feet.)

Most importantly, in the final Socratic discussion we listened to lessons learned from our open ended exploration of chemical reactions, from measuring PH to building better batteries to deep insights about the usefulness of scientific theory; carefully measured trial and error and random trial and error.  Most importantly, we heard of hard earned lessons about serving on and leading a team.

Next session – something even harder than rocket science.  How do you build better forms of government?

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A Report from the Cape

For the last few weeks, Eagles have been hard at work on the Chemistry and Rocket Quest.

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First, experimenting with different chemical reactions and fuel combinations to find a combination with the most explosive power and a proper safety delay.  In essence, using equations and trial and error to gain a deeper understanding of reaction rates.

Not too complicated, until you realize the final objective was to find the fuel with the lowest cost per foot of height gained – which means Eagles had to factor in the changing market prices of chemicals.


Next, Eagles used potatoes, limes, lemons, batteries and LED’s to design a lighting system for the Launchpad.  Again, cost trade offs mattered because the system with the lowest cost system per LED won.  By the end of the day, Eagles were making deep  connections between electricity and economics.

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Environmental conditions came next.  Eagles juggled thermodynamics, temperature and heat to unravel how exothermic and endothermic reactions might impact the launch, then investigated their rocket’s impact on the environment by building a homemade pH meter.

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In between, we hosted a visit from a real Space X Rocket engineer, who described the difficulties and challenges of preparing for reliable and efficient space transport.

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And finally this week, we shifted to testing the “big rockets,” while Eagles complete their space station designs,  continue work building models of their space stations and prepare the fuel that will launch their rocket high enough to win the contest.

Time to start the countdown.


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Daily Launches at Acton Academy


Acton Academy Guides never lecture or teach. In fact, we promise never to answer a question while in the studio. Our job is to act as Gamemakers, offering challenges and tools as part of a Socratic Discussion, in five to fifteen minute launches typically at 8:30 am, 10:30 am and 12:30 pm; followed by a 3 pm closing discussion.

Below is an example from a 12:30 pm launch from the Rocket Quest.  During the week, Eagles had accepted a difficult hands on Chemistry challenge with little formal preparation. For days, nine teams struggled to find the ideal Rocket Fuel recipe. Some used trial and error; others more disciplined scientific inquiry; still others dug into using theory and equations.  Now it was time to discover what had been learned.

The launch started with a reminder of why the Quest work mattered, along with a short video of a real rocket launch:

“Imagine this, it’s two weeks from Friday. Parents, friends and guests are assembled for your rocket launch.  Will your rocket rise majestically or explode on the pad? The decisions you make during today’s discussion just might determine success or failure.”

 On a whiteboard was written a review of the last few days:


  • 9-11 second delay for safety
  • At least 4 meters in altitude,
  • Lowest fuel cost per foot of altitude gained
  • Lowest cost per foot


  • Mixtures
    • Solid versus liquid?
    • Acids versus bases
    • Chemical elements
  • Concentrations
  • Temperature
  • Physical – tablet versus powder

Once the goals and choices were established, Eagles were asked: “Which of the variables was most important to success and why?”   Then: “Which technique would work best? Why?”

  • Casual trial and error?
  • Rigorous scientific experimentation?
  • Scientific theory and formulas?

Which approach would work best if the goal has a relatively large margin of error and there were few variables?

Which approach would work best if the goal requires precision and specificity?

Which approach is superior if you have expensive chemicals, a limited budget and many possible combinations?

It’s the Guide’s job to offer choices; the Eagles’ job to make decisions and back them up.

Finally, for those groups who were struggling, there was chance to receive some help  —  for a price:

“In the real world, scientific research papers help scientists trade ideas, so your team can purchase  a description of a similar experiment for three Eagle Bucks. Or you can try to  purchase trade secrets from a team who you believe has had more successful experiments.”

Then it was time for the work and learning to begin.

Launches are our way to equip Eagles to solve real world problems in a hands on way; analyze the results; look for connections and debate which tools or processes can help.

That’s one way Guides add value in the studio, without getting in the way of learning.

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Lessons Learned from the Chemistry and Cooking Quest

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How do the insights from quests, exhibitions and  badges compare to the knowledge gained from standardized tests, letter grades and report cards?   Read these reflections from a middle school Eagle and judge for yourself.

My Lessons Learned

from the Chemistry and Cooking Quest

  1. Going into this Quest, I never pictured the microscopic worlds within worlds of molecules, atoms, bonds, and particles.   It truly is an infinite universe at your fingertips. And to learn more about the world, we don’t have to expand outward past planets and into galaxies, but can look inward to understand life in its purest form.
  1. Cooking has always been something I’ve been curious about, but I never thought how much it was intertwined with chemistry. Each dish has a recipe, just like each chemical substance has a balanced equation. Each recipe has ingredients, just like each molecule has electrons, protons, and neutrons. Sure you could be a decent chef by dumping some flour in a bowl, beating in a couple eggs, and dusting some sugar, but every great meal relies on the precise rules and laws of chemistry.
  1. Chemistry isn’t what I thought. It’s not complex math and weird potions, it’s an explanation for everything that is, and everything we are. It’s the reason we can’t walk on water; the reason meat browns when cooked, and why soda contains hundreds of tiny bubbles.
  1. No matter how much you learn throughout the Quest, the Exhibition is what determines your success. And it isn’t all about you, it’s about your team and making sure they’re just as confident and on the same page.
  1. This is a pretty cliched lesson, but it was a reminder for me to never give up. No matter how much stress, how much pressure, how much chaos, just get it done and do your best.  Presenting my chemistry knowledge in front of a panel of well­ equipped parents was nerve­ wracking, but I took a deep breath and spoke in my clearest voice and did nothing less than my best effort. In the end, I was proud of what I contributed.
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Parental Influence


As parents we have a great influence on our children.   But perhaps not in the way or to the extent we commonly believe.

In No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption, author Judith Rich Harris use dozens of peer reviewed scientific human development studies on identical twins and siblings to make two points:

  1.  Approximately 50% of your child’s personality is determined by genetics; and
  2.  Of the remaining 50%, no more than 10% is a direct result of parenting.

Focus on the last line…. no more than 10% is a direct result of parenting.

Surprising?  Yes.  Controversial? Definitely.   But if Harris is correct – except for cases of parental negligence or abuse — the community in which our children learn and play is four times as important as our parental interventions, corrections and worries.

Harris splits the important developmental work in schools and self-organizing communities into three sub-systems:

  • Relationship building: knowing others, being known, and learning to predict how another human being will respond to our actions.
  • Socialization: learning how a community clarifies and enforces civil behavior for the good of the tribe; and
  • Status: how individual achievements are celebrated and rewarded to encourage individual growth.

While our decisions as parents impact behavior at home, and as parents we need to offer empathy, nurturing and support, it seems the natural, rough and tumble consequences from peers are more important for preparing children for adulthood and the real world.  If this is true, one of the worst parental mistakes we can make it to intervene to short circuit such tacit learning.

At Acton Academy, our covenants, Eagles Bucks, badges and 360 Peer Reviews are far from perfect, but if Judith Rich Harris is correct, they provide important behavioral guardrails and feedback for young heroes destined to change the world.

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The Launchpad Positive Psychology Quest


Launchpadders have embarked on a deep dive into Positive Psychology, the study of acts and attitudes that lead to more happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment in life.

For decades, Psychology focused on disease and aberrant behavior. Then in the 1990s, University of Pennsylvania Professor Martin Seligman proposed Positive Psychology, a new discipline dedicated to helping the average person live a better life.


Launchpadders will devour the subject by each pursuing individual journeys, frequently comparing notes, and eventually putting their ideas into action with young adults as customers.

The individual journeys will include:

  • Reading a Deep Book, including: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl; Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman; SuperBetter by Jane McGonigal; Inner Work by Robert Johnson; and Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman.
  • All watching a TED talk by Martin Seligman and each watching four more TED talks in the area.
  • All committing to four practices: daily gratitude journaling, mediation or prayer; writing a Gratitude Letter; keeping a Happiness Log and serving someone who is powerless. Then each finding seven more discreet practices to try.
  • All taking the Zimbardo Time Test and each finding find five more tests to take and bring back to the group.
  • Each Eagle contributing at least four writing or video deliverables about a Positive Psychology topic or hero.
  • Each creating a Genre piece exploring the most effective way to deliver Positive Psychology exercises to young adults.

What will come of all of this?  A rapid prototyping sprint to create for Middle School Eagles a Positive Psychology program. Success will be based on how many Middle schoolers complete the challenge and report a change in well being.

If the prototypes are a success, the next step may be a Hackathon to produce an App to deliver the program to young adults around the world.

In the early 20th Century, Bell Labs became the home of the world’s leading thinkers and scientists, gathered to dig deeply into important questions and projects to change the world by making people happier, more satisfied and more fulfilled.

Given the intellectual intensity of Launchpadders on this quest, perhaps it’s time to change the studio’s name to Acton Labs.

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“Mission Control, start the countdown.”


How do you learn Chemistry and Thermodynamics?

Cramming reams of Advanced Placement facts and equations is one approach, except you’ll soon forget most of what you memorized and regurgitated.   At Acton Academy, we’d rather build an advanced space station instead.

So this week, Middle School Eagles began the Rocket Quest, a five week contest to design and pitch a space station to Space X, a private space exploration company,

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Monday and Tuesday’s Challenge

Choose what you will purchase with precious Eagle Bucks: five solid chemicals, two liquid chemicals, plastic test tubes with rubber stoppers or plastic film containers with a pop off lids.  (Both the test tube and the film container can be converted into rockets that launch when the lid releases.)

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Use your team’s curiosity and creativity to design a rocket fuel that meets Space X’s safety requirements – a fuel that has between a nine and eleven second delay before launching.

By the end of the week, your rocket fuel must meet even more stringent requirements:

  • Consistently launch after a ten second delay;
  • Reach a minimum height of four meters .
  • Use the cheapest fuel in terms of cost per foot of altitude achieved.

No textbook. No equations. No guidance. Merely your wits and the internet.

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Will simple trial and error, the Scientific Method or chemical equations, stoichiometry and the Laws of Thermodynamics be more useful?  Only time and experimentation will tell.

Almost immediately, the real world intrudes. If you win, how will you share the profits between team members?  After all, some team members contributed Eagle Bucks for supplies; others know more about Chemistry; and still others provided sweat equity through hard work. Should the equity split be based on fairness, merit or effort?

Wednesday’s Challenge

With the first test launches and many failures behind you, your team now needs to discover a rocket fuel formula that launches in ten seconds, with the least amount of solid fuel. Knowing on Friday that cost will become an issue, you start tracking the fluctuating prices of raw materials.

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You realize that rapid trial and error experiments helped uncover the basic traits of different mixtures, but a mastery of chemical equations may be required to rapidly shift between fuel formulas as market prices change.  It’s time for a crash course in stoichiometry – led by Eagles.

Thursday’s Challenge

The relationships between your goals (safety delay; thrust and cost); variables (solid chemicals; liquids; containers and temperatures) and technique (trial and error; scientific experimentation and scientific theory) are growing more complex.

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What at first the Rocket Quest was pure fun, it’s rapidly becoming a scientific sprint to unravel the chemical secrets of over 125 possible combinations,  with Friday’s launch date looming.

Friday’s Challenge and the Winners

Launch Day arrives too soon. In a last minute flurry of preparations, mistakes occur and tempers flare. Your team must be ready to launch.

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In the end, six of the nine teams achieved a successful launch, but only three within the safety delay window. One rocket soared over forty feet, but failed to meet the safety requirements. A second rocket with the right safety delay sailed high into the air and was  the apparent winner, until it’s fuel was found to be three times as expensive as a competitor.

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The winner? Truthfully, it didn’t matter. Each team learned valuable lessons about Chemistry, Thermodynamics, Science, Economics and Leadership that won’t soon be forgotten.

Next week, we move into a new phase involving electricity and the launchpad. All moving towards a final launch and sales presentation at the Exhibition in four weeks – where the winning team could win a visit to the real Space X.

This sure beats memorizing answers for a standardized test.

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The Power of Peer Leadership



Do you believe young people are capable of forming transformational relationships, with little help from adults?  Is it possible for a learning community to thrive despite —  or perhaps even  because — young people do a better job of leading each other?

Here’s a mid-year update a Launchpadder recently wrote to a Middle School Squad Member (edited to preserve confidentiality.)

Dear xxxxxxxx,

This year has been amazing for you so far. Both in school and outside of school you have taken on fun and challenging adventures. I would like to mention how hard of a worker you are and how delightful it is to have you on my squad. Even when you have to  leave school for a few days for xxxxx practice, you still manage to stay on track. Not many people could do this as well as you have and I would like to encourage you to continue pursuing your passion.

Just this session I have noticed a major improvement in your writing.  Earlier this session, I read one of your deadlines and mistook for a  Launchpadder. Your level of depth and interest make your writing exciting to read. I would like to encourage you to continue writing the way you do and to continue to work hard improve.  Your hard work is paying off.

One thing I think you could improve on more is holding people accountable. I
understand when you ask certain people for Eagle Bucks, they disrupt even more by apologizing.  But I hope you will continue to ask them for Eagle Bucks and that their choices are hurting the studio.  Hold strong! 

I know it’s hard to hold your friends accountable, but in the long run, it will both stenghten your relationship and help you grow as a person too.

I’m really proud of how much you have grown this year. You have become
more independent and responsible and strengthened an already impressive work ethic and attitude. The work you do inspires everyone around you. I’m glad I have you in my squad.


xxxxx xxxxx

Imagine how you would feel if you received such encouraging words from a role model you respected.

Middle School Eagles are equally gifted at self critique and self management.  Here’s an update one Middle Schooler recently sent to parents ( again edited to preserve confidentiality):

Dear Mom and Dad,

I am writing to give you a mid-year progress report.

On a 1-5 scale, I would give myself a 4.7 for intentionality, because during school hours most of the time I feel like I have a purpose and something important to finish.  Only once in two weeks did I have a time where I didn’t feel a purpose in my work. 

On a 1-200 scale, I would give myself a 4 for being warmhearted and tough minded with my studio-mates because though I am always super warmhearted, I do have trouble holding people accountable.

I want to celebrate my hard work in earning badges and finishing previous badges I hadn’t completed yet.  My greatest need is to improve on finding and efficiently using time to finish badges.

So far this year, I have earned xx badges, bringing my total at Acton to xx badges. This session I averaged xxx  Weekly Pts.  When I get my 360 score, this will determine if I am in Freedom Level 2 or 3.

I also have read four serious books since the beginning of the year, including earning one of the total of four Deep Book Badges. I want to finish Algebra 1 by my birthday, so  I will need to complete 14 skills per week.  I will  need your encouragement to complete it  on time.

In order to move into Launchpad, next session I need to earn 115 Khan Skills and add 6 more discussions and 8 critiques to my Socratic Leader Learning Badge, plus earn 5 more badges overall. I’ll also need to average 400 Weekly Points and score a 8 or above on the 360 survey.

again, the  area where I need the most support from you is Khan, in order to finish all of my math work on time.

Thank you,


Yes, having young people lead each other is a more efficient way to run a learning community.  But that’s not the point.  Nor is it solely practice for future leaders, though that’s certainly true.

The real reason we ask young people to lead is that they often are better at leading than adults.   That’s the power of the Hero’s Journey.


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The PFQ Exhibition: Changing the World at Twenty Five


It’s not often you can see ten years into the future with great clarity.  Our Launchpadder’s Personal Finance Quest Exhibition was one of those moments.


Parents and Launchpadder’s joined for a seated dinner.

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After a short welcome, each Launchpadder presented a preview of his or her life at age 25 – a chosen calling; family; college experience (or not); past apprenticeships; car; apartment and other important life choices, plus a fifty year personal financial projection on Google Sheets.


Parents and guests also reviewed LOOPS letters – carefully crafted applications for a life changing apprenticeships — designed to hone persuasive skills.

Then over dinner we discussed “life lessons learned” from the Personal Finance Quest and Stars and Steppingstones interviews with role models, as well as enjoying well crafted debates on some of life’s most important financial questions.

The evening closed with one final debate and a toast to parents who have the courage to give young heroes the freedom to soar.

The takeaways? The difficult choices of real life.  Life’s surprises –  financial, health, career, children and relationships — that can throw a kink into the best laid plans (simulated in this case, by a roll of the die.)  The importance of long talks with mentors who ask hard questions.

This is an extraordinary group of self-directed learning pioneers, a decade ahead of most young people.  The future may be impossible to predict, but the fact that they will change the world in an important way is 100% guaranteed.


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The Chemistry and Cooking Exhibition

The Chemistry and Cooking Exhibition was — well, it was an extravaganza.



Middle School Eagles gathered for a “Chopped-like” cooking contest, where teams would be charged with creating tasty dishes from a random collection of ingredients, under intense time pressure.


But there was a catch.  In order to earn extra time and ingredients, Eagles had to make original one minute Chemistry pitches to an esteemed panel of judges.

The better the pitch, the more points you would earn for your team to enhance its culinary masterpieces – and there was extra credit for tying Chemistry to the specific dish you were cooking.

In other words, science meets real life.

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Luckily, the Eagles had been deeply immersed in independent research and were well prepared with Chemistry displays, skills and facts that could be re-purposed for almost any set of ingredients.


At the end of the Exhibition, a Master Chef declared a winner, making courageous decisions about the Tastiest; Most Original and Best Presented dishes.

Deep science learning; practical cooking skills; team work and decision making under pressure — plus a lot of fun. That’s how we make make science meaningful and great fun at Acton Academy.

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The Science of Delicious

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Solutions, solvents, gases, nutrition, calories and taste – welcome to Week Five of the Chemistry and Cooking Quest and the Science of Delicious.

After spending all week in research and hands on experiments, Eagles divided into teams, researching roles and compensation as scientists in the food testing companies Microbac, Certified Laboratories, Vanguard Sciences and Biorad (note – some of these do NOT have good reviews from their employees!)

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Teams competed to present the most compelling data in a series of food tests including the sweetness of sodas; low fat versus regular cookies; the impact of smell on taste; bread, enzymes and taste and the complex versus simple flavors in wine (OK, we really used Tang and orange juice.)

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Next Eagles dyed and mapped taste buds location from experimental data alone – no use of the internet on this one!

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Then each team created a recipe for ketchup, one of the few foods that features sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness and umami.

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Eagles also embraced an open ended challenge:

Using only water, a measuring cup, a thermometer and a microwave, estimate how many people would need to eat how much of what foods to generate enough power for a  microwave.  (Warning – it’s a lot more complicated question than it seems.)

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We ended with an egg toss, cupcakes and a french fry taste test for ketchup recipes.  What do these last tasks have to do with science?  Not much, but definitely delicious!

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The Loafer’s Loaf or the Worker’s Loaf?


A morning launch.  Two loaves of bread.  Discussing sacred pledges and falling standards.

An Eagle read aloud from  the Contract of Promises.  Then a reading from the Guide-Eagle Contract on the sworn duty of Guides to act as studio mirrors, making clear any gaps between promises and actions.   Mistakes and missteps may be necessary but they are no excuse for obfuscation – either intentionality in the studio needs to rise or the standards must be explicitly lowered.

Next, a discussion. First holding up the white bread: “What words come to mind when you see this?”

The Eagles: “Ordinary;” “soft;” “cheap;” and “unhealthy.”

Then holding up coarse multi grain bread: ‘What words does this evoke?”

“Special;” “unique;” “healthy” Eagles offered, one by one.

Talk of heroes: Washington; Lincoln;  Colonel Travis at the Alamo; Martin Luther King  in Birmingham.   None of these would have chosen the ordinary Loafer’s Loaf. Real heroes choose from the Worker’s Loaf, no matter what sacrifices are required.

“You have promised to act as heroes; young people around the world are depending on you. Yet recently our intentions seem to have slipped.  What should we do about it?”

Promises flowed. Re-commitments. Pledges.  An invitation was offered: sometime today, take a piece of the Workers Loaf as a sign you are serious about being more intentional in your work.

By the end of the day the Worker’s Loaf was gone, carried off bit by bit.  The Loafers Load left untouched.



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All Rise for Mock Trial

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It was the final contest of the Regional Mock Trial  Competition.  A real judge called the courtroom to order.

The defendant Adilai Cheney was accused of shooting down a spying drone, sending it crashing into a next door neighbor’s yard, killing her prize dog and best friend Little Pixel Poo Poo.

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A crack Acton defense team prepared for weeks to face a corrupt District Attorney’s office staffed not by a drunken DA, but even worse, private school over-achievers.   Cheney’s fate hung in the balance.

The verdict?   Wise people know you go to the courthouse to pick winners and losers, not to find justice.  So it won’t be the Eagles heading to state.

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It was a valiant effort.  Especially for rookies against seasoned competitors.

Just wait until next year!

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Chocolate Chip Stoichiometry

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Few Chemists believe Stoichiometry and chocolate chip cookies go together.   After Friday’s cooking challenge, Our MS Eagles know it’s true.


First we offered a series of difficult questions about chemical equations and stoichiometry.  If you solved these, your earned a chocolate chip cookie recipe and the right to buy ingredients.  Each individual had to answer individual questions and each mistake cost five Eagle Bucks, so learning about science early in the week made you a valuable team member.

Two challenges.  First, the recipe was for 40 cookies.  Second, it was stated in cups. Eagles had to translate into a smaller batch of cookies and into grams of ingredients, applying a different cost per ingredient to calculate the overall cost.

Then a team had to reserve and pay for a slot time in the oven.  Reserve a slot too late in the day, and cookie demand might be sated.  Reserve too early in the day, and you might not be ready in time.

Either way, you would have a lot of Eagle Bucks were at risk.  Welcome to our attempt to make Chemistry and Cooking relevant

Most of us in the real world don’t need to know much about chemistry or cooking.  Thanks to modern science and a free economy, you just spray a little Raid on a wasp’s nest to rid yourself of pests or toss a burger on the grill when hungry   Tolerances are high and mistakes are cheap.

Pest control professionals and chefs have a higher standard – they get paid to master a process and get it right every time.   Likewise, those charged with inventing the world’s fastest computer chip or tastiest potato chip need a firm grasp of theory;  trial and error is just too costly and imprecise.

How could we convince Eagles to care about process or theory with such a minuscule impact on their lives?  The answer: make it into a contest with scarce resources, where accuracy and speed matter, and theory leads to a more valuable product.

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Yes, it was messy.   And a Guide’s mistake on the answer key didn’t help.  But the studio pulsed with the energy of a high end bakery or Bell Labs, because “getting it right” mattered to the Eagles.

That’s how you turn Chocolate Chip Stoichiometry into an unforgettable scientific and culinary experience, with real world implications for our young heroes.


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Hooray for Launchpad Montessori Guides!


Eagles run most of our Learner Driven Community at Acton Academy.

Whether it’s studio self-governance and maintenance; Middle Schoolers shepherding Elementary Studio Eagles as Eagle Buddies; or Launchpadders leading Middle School Squads and creating Middle School Quests, there’s a constant stream of Eagles moving from one studio to another throughout the day.

Now Eagles have introduced Launchpad Montessori Quest Guides, where Launchpadders have taken complete responsibility for equipping our youngest Eagles with the tools and habits they need to become independent learners.

How is it working?  Here’s one parent’s take:

“Something has clicked for our son.  He’s feeling so positive about the Montessori Quest.  He begged me to take him to get donuts to bring to school tomorrow for his fellow questers. I asked him why and he said: “it’s because of the new Launchpad Guides.”  I hope they know their kindness is paying dividends already.”

Leading through serving.  Learning through real world responsibility.  Congratulations to our Launchpad Montessori Guides for helping those just starting their Hero’s Journeys.

We know it’s a kindness that will be paid forward for years to come.

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