Monthly Archives: March 2017

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.


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.