Monthly Archives: January 2014

Rocket Scientists in Antarctica



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Acton Academy Middle Schoolers have been hard at work on a secret rocket fuel formula, at an undisclosed location near the South Pole.

OK. To tell the truth, Eagles are combining different kinds and temperatures  of soda and mentos in one experiment and different concentrations of hydrogen peroxide, soap and yeast in another, and measuring and comparing the results.

And while the temperatures were in the 30s Thursday, with a raging north wind, the Eagle scientists were in Austin, not Antarctica.

But Eagles are in the middle of a week long series of hands-on experiments, delving into physical and chemical processes, preparing for a battle where they’ll have to create the best mix to win the Rocket Competition on Monday (postponed from today because of ice.)

Perhaps more importantly, Eagles chose to work outside, in bitterly cold conditions, without being asked.  You see, they have some pressing questions to explore.

The mark of true heroic scientists.





The Power of Process Drama

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Process Drama  fuses imagination, improvisation and community.  Sound mysterious?   It is.

So what is the end result? In the words of one MS Eagle: “Character traits come to life and become habits,  through imagination, action and adventure.”

In years past, local artistic genius Nat Miller generously donated his gifts as a Process Drama Guide.  But if that  guiding genius cannot be spread to others, it’s not replicable.

So this year Middle Schoolers have taken over as Process Drama Guides for the elementary school, to rave reviews by all.

Why has Eagle led Process Drama been such a hit?  Again, in the words of a MS Eagle:

  1. It matters.  Imagination, creativity and character are an important part of a Hero’s Journey.
  2. You must learn the process. But if you do, it works.
  3. We are in charge. It’s something we create that transforms others.
  4. Process drama is hard work, but also lots of fun.

An excellent set of criteria for any Acton Academy Quest.

Learning to Write

In a traditional school, learning to write means a paper filled with red marks; reading a textbook on grammar; or listening to an adult drone on and on about Faulkner (the distorted wah, wah, wah of Charlie Brown’s teacher comes to mind.)

At Acton Academy, the first step towards becoming a writer is developing a love of reading.  Next comes journaling: getting observations, thoughts and feelings on paper to share with others.   Group critique with warm and cool feedback serves as a catalyst for the difficult art of revision.

Yet, this somehow feels incomplete.  At some point a writer needs to hone her or his word crafting skills.   No Red Ink is an interactive program that helps with grammar, as do the best computer grammar checkers, but this is more about art than convention.

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So we asked each Eagle to choose a specific type of word to research – a pronoun or adjective or even more specific term.   Then to prepare a Prezi celebrating the word.

Pods of eight shared their creations, and voted on the two best presentations from each group.  The semi-finalists from each pod shared with the entire studio.

The result – lots of enthusiasm. Full coverage of every type of word, several times over.  Energy; sharing with peers and more finely honed tools: a fertile soil for cultivating powerful writers.

Far more powerful than a textbook, red marks or a droning adult.


A Confession: We Made Rocket Fuel Boring

Here’s a confession: Acton Guides made science boring this week.  Even more difficult to believe, we made investigating rocket fuel boring.  That should be next to impossible.

Don’t let the picture above fool you.  Yes, there was more energy around the rocket fuel challenge today, but not as much as their should have been.

How did we blunder so?

  • We thought about which science topics were important.
  • Then we designed experiments.
  • Then we added videos and math.
  • Because we were afraid the challenge might not be exciting enough, we tried to correct with extrinsic rewards.

Wrong; wrong; wrong.

Science requires two key ingredients: curiosity and rigorously applying the scientific method.  If you have a burning question that deeply motivates you, the tediousness of the scientific process isn’t a burden.

This brings up a more fundamental law of Acton Quest creation:

Curiosity + Relevance + Fun + Group Interaction  >>> (must be far greater than) the difficulty of the process to learn and apply.

Boiling this into steps:

  1. Find out what raises a burning question in the minds of the Eagles;
  2. Make sure it matters to future heroes who will change the world.
  3. Raise the energy level by encouraging collaboration.

The more difficult or complex the process to be learned, the more energy you need from Curiosity + Relevance + Fun + Group Interaction.  (Note – be sure to remove as much confusion and as many technical frustrations  – like computer programs that won’t load – as possible.)

If a process is technical or complex, break it into parts, or be sure you have a particularly compelling exhibition at the end.

We’ll start correcting course next week, starting with asking Eagles: “What are curious about in the world?”

That’s where we should have started.  Why do Guides have to learn the same lessons, again and again?

Simulations, anyone?

This week Eagles are deeply involved in hands-on experiments involving projectile travel.  After all, if you want to win a Rocket Olympics, you need to know how to aim.


Understanding projectile travel is no easy task.  It means measuring the velocity of a projectile leaving your catapult, and using an equation to predict how far the projectile will travel. It requires a working knowledge of algebra and struggling with high school level Khan videos.

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Once our Eagles have built and tested their catapults and digested the theory and mathematics, it will be time to experiment with the art of simulation.  Do the experimental results confirm or call into question the equations?  Do the equations confirm the simulation?

Finally, given a new set of targets and the simulation, can you find the right settings to hit a real world target with your catapult, in only one try?  That’s putting science to work.

If you want to try the simulation, go here:

If you want to have some real fun, check out the 100 or so other simulations.  And then imagine how much fun you could have designing hands-on science projects that use these.

What’s the impact of “Bell Lab level” intentionality?

Discoveries, inventions and innovations from Bell Labs shaped the modern world.

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Today a test of scientific intentionality: Eagles were asked to imagine that the cameras in the studio were turned on, and that scientists from Bell Labs were watching.  Could we achieve a “Bell level” of intentionality all afternoon?  If so, how much more work could be accomplished than on an average day?

Those who didn’t want to take the challenge were asked to work outside, in silent Core Skills.

By the end of the day, a survey was taken.  Eagles believed they accomplished 50% more work than on a normal day.

What’s the cumulative value of a 50% increase in output, if each day of learning builds on the last?  In a week you would have learned 17.5 times as much.

Surely overstated, but consider for a moment people who are committed to a cause.  Don’t they get far more done than the average person?

Grit, perseverance and intentionality trump IQ, every time.  Just one of the many reasons the Hero’s Journey is so important – especially for world changing scientists.

“Best Work” in Science

What does it mean to do your “best work” in science?

Is it diligently repeating ancient experiments?  Carefully watching a few simple demonstrations?  Neat and tidy documentation? Or simply open ended inquiries?

Which is more likely to spark a love of discovery?   Which will develop the grit and perseverance required of world changing scientists? Which will better prepare Heroes for the 21st century?

Here’s a page from one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks:

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Here’s a collection of our Eagles scientific output, as they struggle to document their findings in hands-on experiments involving gravity and projectiles.  Is this a mess or an example of genius at work?

Today we discussed the criteria for best scientific work, by comparing the output from the Eagles with da Vinci’s work.  The Eagles’ criteria for “best work” in science:

  • Curiosity: The question must be interesting.
  • Clarity: Ten out of ten people must be able to understand the results.
  • Beauty: The notes should be organized and presented in a visually pleasing way.

So what do you believe defines “best work” in science?  An interesting question.

Calling Google, Amazon and Apple

Eagles seeking an apprenticeship with  Google , Amazon or Apple likely will be given a difficult, open ended problem, like: “How many cows are in Canada?”

It’s not the answer that matters, but the quality of the thinking.

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On Friday Eagles were challenged with a difficult physics problem.  If given the experimental set up above, and d2 (the distance of the cup), can you solve for h1, the height from which to drop the ball?

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No trial and error experiments were allowed.  No equations or cookbook theories were offered. Eagles had only four tries at three different d2 distances, and each try was expensive (25 pts) relative to the payoff (100 pts.)

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All week we worked on physics experiments that involved Newton’s Laws of Motion, the Four Fundamental Forces and the Scientific Method.  Careful observation and a lot of thought might have led one college student out of a hundred to the right approach for Friday’s competition, and an equation to solve this problem, using theory alone.

Can you solve it? (Hint – consider horizontal velocity and gravity separately.)

No Eagle came up with the perfect solution.  But many theories were proposed and tested.  Lots of frustration. Human error turned out to be important. So did working effectively as a team.  Two teams came close enough that their theories helped predict h1 during the competition.

In other words, our Eagles learned a lot about how science really works, not how it works in textbook experiments.  When you become a hero charged with launching real rockets, in the real world, this distinction will make all the difference.

Who knows, it might even land an apprenticeship with a private space entrepreneur like Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson or Elon Musk.

Shhhh! Skunk Works Ahead

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See the photos above?  It’s a skunk works – an off limits lab – operating deep inside Acton Academy.

So what’s going on behind these walls?  Well, with a skunk works, so that’s supposed to be a secret.  But given that Acton is an open source lab, it probably wouldn’t hurt to tell you.

Inside these walls, three Acton Eagle middle schoolers are working on a Quest for the week of January 20th.  And at another undisclosed location, a second team of three Eagles is hard at work on the following week’s curriculum.  A third team will start soon.

Middle school Eagles creating curriculum?  It’s one thing to believe Eagles can govern their own studios; quite another to believe they can create their own Challenges and Quests. But we believe they can.

That’s why Eagle teams will be working for the next few weeks with world-class game designed Jesse Jacobson, creating curriculum together so Jesse can create a prototype of a curriculum creation game, to inspire and equip Guides and Eagles to create their own Quests.

Just think of the power of young heroes who can imagine an interesting problem, and then design a way to inspire others to learn the skills and frameworks needed to solve it.

Just remember.  It’s a secret.  So don’t tell anyone.

More Acton Academies to Open in the Fall of 2014

Acton Academy Campus

We closed the first round of the Acton Academy expansion contest, awarding the right to open Acton Academies in London and Washington DC and two more AA’s in Austin (North and South.)

A second round of the contest will close in March 31st, with the possibility of adding a few more schools to the mix next year.

The more Acton Academies, the more experiments we can run. As we’ve learned from Acton Academy Guatemala and Southern California, all of this speeds up the disruption of the status quo.

Rockets, planets and atoms – Oh my!

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Today we started our “Big and Small” quest, designed to explore the question of whether Eagles are more motivated “feeling small” in an infinite universe or “feeling big” in a microscopic one.

For the next six weeks, our eagles will be tackling difficult challenges in Cosmology, Physics and Chemistry, preparing for a Rocket Olympics the week of February 10th where they will launch rockets (purchased with Eagle Bucks) competing on height, distance, accuracy, beauty and design.

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Along the way, they’ll be learning the practical and theoretical power Newton’s Laws, the Four Fundamental Forces and the Scientific Method.

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Today we started with simple “table cloth” and “dropping object” challenges to experience inertia, gravity and the Scientific Method firsthand, with the results probed in a Socratic discussion.

All of this will prepare our Eagles for a Friday competition that will take cunning and logic – as well as serious attention the the Scientific Method – to win.