Monthly Archives: January 2015

Will I live or die?

frog 10

This was Animal Week for the Biology Quest.

Eagles studied animal behavior, taxonomy and physiology, preparing for the end of session Biology Bee.

More importantly, each Eagle faced a difficult moral dilemma:

1.  Perform a dissection and a series of experiments on a frog freshly (and humanely) killed, taking care that the scientific lessons were worth it.

2.  Instead, perform fewer experiments on a preserved frog.  This meant Eagles would not have to kill a frog, but by purchasing a frog killed by someone else, might encourage the killing of more frogs in the future.

3. Refuse to do any work on a real frog, recently alive or preserved, and instead rely on a virtual dissection alone.

These difficult decisions led to a week-long series of ethical discussions and  angst.  All the while, Eagles were working on experimental protocols from famous experiments by Galvani and others.  Unlike some traditional schools, most of the challenges weren’t simple prearranged experiments, but complex endeavors that required a great deal of pre-planning and thought.

frog 1 frog 2 Frog 3 frog 4 frog 5 frog 6 frog 7 frog 8 frog 9

In the end, several of the more complex experiments failed.   Everyone completed a complex dissection and a few teams managed to test various chemicals like nicotine and caffeine on a beating frog heart; but no one was able to animate a frog’s legs with electricity.  Just like real scientists, the results were unpredictable and often frustrating.

The final verdict?  Three live frogs were humanely sacrificed.  Three more were granted a pardon and sent home, with at least some chance of surviving.  One Eagle bravely abstained from working on any real frogs on moral grounds, and received a round of applause for his courage.

Real, messy science.  Difficult ethical decisions with real consequences.  Learning Science not as a mantra, but a messy work in progress.



Launchpad Quest Creation


Our Launchpad Eagles are beginning to design their Spring and Fall Quests.

Here’s the process:

1.  Make a list of the skills, areas of interest and vocations you might want to master.

2.  Check the requirements for a selective college, to see how a survey of an academic discipline or a deep dive into an area of real world specialty could satisfy an academic requirement, while still celebrating individuality or encouraging curiosity.

3.  Create a list of possible Acton Academy Quests that could be created to help Middle School or Elementary School Eagles learn a subject or skill, that also satisfies #1 and #2 above.

4.   Choose what you want to do next and craft an action plan with mileposts.

5.  Cross the threshold and get started.

Here’s how the process worked out for one Eagle (disguised to protect privacy):

Step One:  Skills, Areas of Interest and Possible Vocations

  1. Learning Spanish.
  2. Venezuela
  3. Anthropology
  4. K12 Education.
  5. Molecular Biology.
  6. The Law and an apprenticeship, possibly with the US Supreme Court.
  7. NOLs – leadership in challenging outdoor settings.
  8. Leadership skills.
  9. Cooking skills.
  10. Arguing and debating (legal.)

Step Two: Compare to Badges needed for College:

  1. Equivalent of two years of a foreign language.
  2. Need at least two more hard sciences: Deep dive in Chemistry in the fall. Physics next.
  3. One or two more deep books this year.  At least one from Modern American Literature.
  4.  Finish World Civilization with the group in Socratic Discussions.  American Civilization next.
  5. Four more genre (writing) badges needed this year.
  6.  Finish Algebra I and II this year. Geometry and trig next.

Step Three: Brainstorming Ideas and Combinations

Spanish and Venezuela – an Into the World Badge (and more.)

  • Take Spanish I and II (all of Duolingo) plus some immersion as outlined in Thirty Days until Fluency. 
  • Combine with a one or two week Acton Academy apprenticeship in Latin America (you also could do some Skyping beforehand,) with a paper comparing some aspect of Acton Austin and Acton Guatemala.
  • Pick a Deep book to read about Latin America.  Perhaps 100 Years of Solitude or Don Quixote.
  • Another option would be research and a paper comparing some aspect of the Venezuelan Court system and the US.


  • Shadowing a private and public school and comparing to Acton Academy and perhaps Acton Academy Venezuela.
  • A self study deep dive or online course in Anthropology.
  • A paper or TEDX talk focusing on the difference between grades and badges.
  • A deep book about 21st Century education.


  • Some sort of online Law course – UT extension or EdX.
  • An apprenticeship with the US Supreme Court or a lawyer.
  • A paper or TEDX talk on some particular aspect of Constitutional law


  • Deep dive in Chemistry with other LP’s.
  • Focus on cooking and chemistry and relation to nutrition.
  • Deep book on Chemistry.
  • Some sort of cooking demonstration that involves chemistry.
  • Perhaps a paper or speech about organizing a team in a kitchen.

 NOLS and outdoor leadership

  • Take a NOLS course.
  • A paper on motivation when in the wild.
  • Mapmaking skills.
  • Executing a trek – planning and leadership.

Step Four- Working Plan for this Spring

1. Spring Quest Creation Badge in Spanish –

  •  Use Duolingo
  • Read the book Fluent in Three Months and use its approach to start the immersion process as soon as possible.
  •  Choose a deep book about the Spanish culture.
  • Document the way you learned Spanish, in a way other Eagles can follow, and present in some sort of written and/or video format.
  • Find and pass a test that demonstrates Spanish I proficiency. As a stretch goal, pass Spanish II as well.

2. Take a verified (graded) online introductory course in Anthropology on EdX, Udacity; Coursera or UT Extension, for example: or or do a deep dive on your own. This will be used for a QC badge in spring involving education.

3. Possibly take a verified (graded) online introductory course in Anthropology on EdX, Udacity; Coursera or UT Extension, for example

4. Add Deep Books and Genre pieces as necessary in areas of interest.

5.  Pursue other ideas in the fall.

Step Five- Getting Started

  1. Watch Benny’s TEDX talk:
  2. Commit to spend ____ hours each week on Duolingo.
  3. Read Fluent in Thirty Days and have a SMART immersion plan by ___________ .
  4. Have a test that I will use to measure mastery by __________.
  5. Complete Algebra I and I by ____________.
  6. Choose and pitch a Deep Book about Spanish culture by __________.
  7. Create a list of Genre projects and have a SMART plan for the first one by ___________.
  8. Choose an Anthropology course by ____________ and start by __________.
  9. Choose a law related course by ______________ and start by _____________.
  10. Begin my law apprenticeship process during Session Six.

Creating a path towards a calling, while keeping all options open for a selective college or a world changing apprenticeship.   Creating Quests that Middle and Elementary Eagles can enjoy. That’s what the future looks like for an Acton Academy Launchpadder.

37 Trillion Answers

Jack Charlie Ben sam

Can you decipher these photos?  A difficult challenge; to play the game, you’ll have to read to the end.

Your body has approximately 37 trillion cells.  To put that into perspective, if each cell were a second, it would take over one million years to number the cells inside you.  How many different types of cells do you think you could identify?

The challenge for Middle School Eagles in Week Two of the Biology Quest is to play detective, earning clues to decide which of the over 200 Cell Types and dozens of Cell processes have been assigned to their team.


All during the week, Eagles performed independent research, played games like Cell Craft (above) and wrote numerous short pieces about their discoveries, like this:

A cell is the building block of all living things including plants, animals, and, as you never would have guessed, single-celled organisms.  Cells are made up of different parts, and vary from kingdom to kingdom, so I’ll go over the type that’s the most familiar to us animals, animal cells.  Animal cells are made up of several components, all of which are crucial to the health of the cell.  Let’s start on the outside, with probably the least complex of all of the parts of a cell, the cell membrane.  

The cell membrane is basically a wall that keeps the good cell-parts in, and keeps the bad stuff out.  (Or at least it tries to)  Next up is the mitochondria.  It’s the power plant of the cell.  It produces adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which is used to power the rest of the cell.  The next item in our cellular journey is the nucleus, the center of the cell.  The nucleus controls the cells functions, by controlling protein synthesis.  The nucleus also stores the DNA, the instruction manual for the cell, and the nucleolus, which produces ribosomal RNA is produced.  

Another organelle in the cell is the vacuole. It stores food, water, waste material, and a microscopic caveman named Bob.  (I was kidding about that last one)  Another part of animal cells is Lysosomes.  They are the cell’s clean-up crew, breaking down food into smaller pieces, and they also break down old cell parts.  Those are only some of the parts of the cell, with plenty more and more complex parts.

Completing each challenge earned another clue for your team.  The sooner you received the clues and discovered your cell and cellular  process, the sooner you could begin working on a skit to demonstrate your identity to the studio – without using any words.  The team with the most correct guesses from the studio won.

Can guess the cellular processes and cells pictured above?  Here’s a list of possibilities:

  1. Protein Synthesis (E. Coli.)
  2. Fertilization + Meiosis (Sperm)
  3. Photosynthesis (Plant Cell)
  4. Cellular Respiration (Fat Cell)
  5. Mitosis (Skin Cell)

Perhaps this video will help for one of the skits.

Here’s another:


By the end of the week, each Eagle had a deeper understanding of cells and cellular processes, and the week’s Launchpad Creator received the standing ovation pictured above from his Middle School comrades.

Quite an improvement from textbooks and lectures.  All from a Quest created by a team of high school aged Eagles.


Let the Biology Games Begin


If you were a high school aged Launchpadder, how would you challenge Middle School Eagles  to learn Biology? By flipping through a textbook?  By listening to a lecture? Not hardly.  For an Acton Academy Biology Quest must have challenges, rewards and fun.

To launch the first week of the Biology Quest, each Eagle pitched to stand in the shoes of a Biology Hero in a Nobel Prize acceptance speech, explaining why he or she had become a world class scientist.  Some participants had to pitch three or four heroes to gain entry into the Cell, Plant, Animal or Biosphere team – meaning Eagles were exposed to dozens of heroes and experiments during the week long series of pitches and critiques.

Each team also will have to create hands-on experiments, videos and artistic displays to showcase their scientists and area of concentration.  The speeches and displays will be showcased in a public exhibition at the end of the six weeks, along with a Biology Bee where participants will compete to give the clearest, most accurate and compelling descriptions of different biological theories and processes – only seconds after having their question pulled from a hat.

During the six week Biology Quest, each subsequent week be led by the Launchpadder who designed it, focusing on Cells in week two; Plants in week three; Animals (and evolution) in week four; Humans (and DNA) in week five and the Biosphere in the final week.

So what is the picture above?  For that answer, you’ll need to dive into Week Two’s Cell Quest – the subject of tomorrow’s post.