Monthly Archives: February 2016

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.

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.

“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.

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.


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.


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.

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!

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.



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!

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.