Category Archives: Rocket Olympics

We have liftoff!

The Rocket Olympics finished with a bang – or to be precise, seven powerful blasts.

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We started with a few last minute preparations and a review of the different rocket designs and artwork, with voting by Eagles from the Elementary and Middle Schools.

Next, it was time for seven dramatic countdowns that led to seven spectacular launches — rockets shooting and twisting far out of sight, until with a “pop” parachutes emerged.

We had six successful recoveries and an 84% success rate, with several Rocket Teams making surprisingly accurate predictions of their rockets’ trajectories, especially given the brisk 10-20 mile per hour, swirling, gusting winds.

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In the end, the winners celebrated, complete with an Olympic style rendition of the national anthem.

Rocket Scientists of the world unite!

Mission Control is Buzzing with Anticipation

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Mission Control buzzed with energy as rocket scientists prepared for tomorrow’s launches.  Rocket points were tallied, to make sure each team had paid for the rocket parts they had ordered.

This morning we reviewed experiments from the last few days, noting the different approaches that different groups of scientists had taken:

  •  Gathering large amounts of experimental data and using proven equations;
  •  Using fewer empirical observations and a simulator to make predictions;
  •  Inventing entirely new approaches and equations, that might or might not work.
  • Adjusting initial estimates based on new learning.

Depending on the the approach, Eagle teams celebrated:

  • Preciseness;
  • Diligence and perseverance;
  • Creativity;
  • Teamwork; or
  • Curiosity.

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Then, focus shifted to tomorrow’s Rocket Olympics, as nothing concentrates the attention quite like a countdown (with apologies to Samuel Johnson.)  Estimating the impact of winds forecast at 10-20 miles per hour, and aiming the rocket so it drifts back to the launch site will be no easy task.

The countdown begins at 12:30 Central Standard Time on Thursday.  Let the games begin.



Welcome to the Disruptive Matrix

Conventional wisdom suggests project based learning is the best way to teach STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.)  Acton Academy takes this one step further, adding narrative and gamification to projects to create Quests.

Despite these high sounding goals, our recent Rocket Quest was a flop.  The experiments, videos and equations seemed too structured – a series of old style science experiments disguised in Quest clothing.  Our Eagles weren’t fooled and weren’t interested.

In our quest to make science more interesting, we’d made the journey too complicated.  we’d forgotten that science is a curiosity powered, relentless pursuit of natural truths, no gimmicks required.

So we punted, “took the red pill” and posed two open ended challenges (the “red pill” is a Matrix allusion, for those of us old and lame enough to be Guides.)

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  1. Point the nozzle of a tennis ball machine straight up and fire.  Then predict where the ball will land if the machine is positioned at 30 degrees, 45 degrees and 70 degrees from horizontal.  No equations, videos or intermediate exercises offered. No trial and error allowed.
  2. Shoot a pressurized water rocket – a two liter plastic bottle –  straight up.  Then predict where the rocket will land if launched  from 30 degrees, 45 degrees and 70 degrees. No trial and error allowed.

An added incentive is that the closer our Eagles predictions were to reality, the more Rocket Points they could can earn, which then could be used to buy larger Estes rockets for next week’s Rocket Olympics.

Most Eagles had to purchase rockets in advance, increasing pressure because they had to spend points before earning them; any deficit would have to be made up using Eagle Buckets, at an unfavorable exchange rate.

In attacking these problems, Eagles could:

  1. Use the equations of physics;
  2. Locate a projectile simulator on the internet or
  3. Pattern match parabolas.

The most dedicated teams could cross check answers from all three approaches.

Each Eagle group took a different path.  Three groups made predictions for the tennis ball machine that were remarkably close to reality; the last two closed the gap after a misfire or two.

After success with the tennis ball machine, the  water rocket  experiment should have been a breeze.  Simply apply the same equations and simulations a second time.  Lesson learned: math is a “force multiplier” because it allows you to learn something once, and apply it again and again.

Here’s where the real world intervened.   The water rocket predictions  were  50% longer than the real world tests at 45 degrees.  What had gone wrong? Guides were stumped.

The teams went back to their tracker programs, video tools that allow our young scientists to track the x-y position of a projectile at precise time intervals.  They soon discovered  that the rockets went up much faster than they came down, a discovery that made  the simple projectile formulas useless.

Lots of conjecture followed: Was it that the two liter bottles lost mass as they rose?  Did the rockets fall more slowly because they tumbled?  Eagles drew from their experiences in mini experiments, began re-watching videos and checking the assumptions in formulas.

The room was humming with hypotheses being born.  Formulas and simulators were tested with the new data.  One team re-fired the rocket without water, to see if losing water mass really was the problem.

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On an icy day when most schools had been dismissed for a snow day, our young scientists were out in the cold, firing rocket after rocket, trying desperately to squeeze in as many tests as possible.

This time the results fit with predictions!  Eureka!

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Our debrief centered on how good it felt for an experiment to succeed, and how dangerous this longing for validation was for real scientists.  As one Eagle put it: “To be true to a scientific calling, you have to care more about truth than yourself.”

So real science is about never forgetting to “take the red pill.”

Quite a lesson indeed.


Wickedly Open Ended Challenges

What do our young heroes need the most in science:

  • A specialized vocabulary to discuss a technical subject clearly and intelligently;
  • The processes, formulas or equations to solve a clearly defined problem; or
  • The curiosity and tenacity to tackle a wickedly open ended question?

In a way, these three types of learning track our promises to parents:

  • Learn to know;
  • Learn to do;
  • Learn to be.

Is it better to learn about velocity, acceleration and gravity from watching skill based videos; experimenting for hours with deeply immersive simulations or learning through hands-on trial and error?

We’ve struggled to get Eagles to engage with pre-formed problems, which haven’t piqued their imaginations, even when disguised as demonstrations.

So we gave up, and in desperation posed a wickedly open ended challenge:

  1. Use a tennis ball machine to shoot a ball straight up in the air.
  2. Using only this experiment, predict how far a tennis ball will fly if the machine shoots a ball at 30, 45 and 70 degrees from the horizontal.

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Suddenly, the teams were engaged.  Some Eagles dove straight into algebra and geometry; others searched for a simulation that would help; some just kept plugging numbers into formulas hoping the answer would magically appear.

Before long, it was clear that there were three problems plaguing the teams:

  1. A failure to define the problem and goal;
  2. Not knowing how to find and use a process, framework, formula or tool to help; and
  3. Interpersonal conflicts between team members.

The most damaging of these was the failure to define the problem and goal.  For many Eagles it was fire, ready, aim.  The second biggest problem was interpersonal conflicts between team members.  A distant third was the difficulty of solving the problem, once properly defined.

Isn’t that the case in real life?  Aren’t most colossal mistakes usually a failure to recognize the real problem?  Aren’t the biggest blunders often a result of talking past each other?  How often have arguments between team members doomed a project?

So at least for now, open ended problems seem to deliver the most powerful learning.  Even if it is a frustrating and messy process for the Guides.


Soaring to the stars through simulations

The simulations now available for learning about physics and astrophysics are mind boggling.

Kerbal Space Program lets you build rockets and fly them to distant planets – but only if you put in the hard work to master complex physics problems.

Universal Sandbox allows you to manipulate time and space in a way that makes the universe come alive, traveling side by side with a comet or a beam of light.

If you don’t believe the internet and simulations are going to change the way we learn physics and astrophysics, just spend some time with these tools and prepare for a powerful awakening.

Now it’s up to us to find a way to use these tools to inspire and equip our young heroes.

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.





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.