Monthly Archives: March 2016

A Report from the Cape

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

space 7 space 9

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.

ethanph 1

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.

space x

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.

rock 3rock 1

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.


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.

Lessons Learned from the Chemistry and Cooking Quest

Chem and cooking

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.