Category Archives: Science

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.





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.

Calling Google, Amazon and Apple

Eagles seeking an apprenticeship with  Google , Amazon or Apple likely will be given a difficult, open ended problem, like: “How many cows are in Canada?”

It’s not the answer that matters, but the quality of the thinking.

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On Friday Eagles were challenged with a difficult physics problem.  If given the experimental set up above, and d2 (the distance of the cup), can you solve for h1, the height from which to drop the ball?

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No trial and error experiments were allowed.  No equations or cookbook theories were offered. Eagles had only four tries at three different d2 distances, and each try was expensive (25 pts) relative to the payoff (100 pts.)

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All week we worked on physics experiments that involved Newton’s Laws of Motion, the Four Fundamental Forces and the Scientific Method.  Careful observation and a lot of thought might have led one college student out of a hundred to the right approach for Friday’s competition, and an equation to solve this problem, using theory alone.

Can you solve it? (Hint – consider horizontal velocity and gravity separately.)

No Eagle came up with the perfect solution.  But many theories were proposed and tested.  Lots of frustration. Human error turned out to be important. So did working effectively as a team.  Two teams came close enough that their theories helped predict h1 during the competition.

In other words, our Eagles learned a lot about how science really works, not how it works in textbook experiments.  When you become a hero charged with launching real rockets, in the real world, this distinction will make all the difference.

Who knows, it might even land an apprenticeship with a private space entrepreneur like Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson or Elon Musk.

Shhhh! Skunk Works Ahead

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See the photos above?  It’s a skunk works – an off limits lab – operating deep inside Acton Academy.

So what’s going on behind these walls?  Well, with a skunk works, so that’s supposed to be a secret.  But given that Acton is an open source lab, it probably wouldn’t hurt to tell you.

Inside these walls, three Acton Eagle middle schoolers are working on a Quest for the week of January 20th.  And at another undisclosed location, a second team of three Eagles is hard at work on the following week’s curriculum.  A third team will start soon.

Middle school Eagles creating curriculum?  It’s one thing to believe Eagles can govern their own studios; quite another to believe they can create their own Challenges and Quests. But we believe they can.

That’s why Eagle teams will be working for the next few weeks with world-class game designed Jesse Jacobson, creating curriculum together so Jesse can create a prototype of a curriculum creation game, to inspire and equip Guides and Eagles to create their own Quests.

Just think of the power of young heroes who can imagine an interesting problem, and then design a way to inspire others to learn the skills and frameworks needed to solve it.

Just remember.  It’s a secret.  So don’t tell anyone.

Can We Try an Experiment?

Today an Eagle asked if he could try an experiment about motivation (Our overarching question for the year is: “What motivates a hero?”)

Our Eagle was was curious how caffeine and sugar affected motivation. So with the permission of parents, he wanted to offer each Eagle a six ounce cup of coffee at the start of the day.

In a blind test, some Eagles would get caffeinated coffee, others decaf.  Some Eagles would get natural sugar; others artificial sugar.  Eagles would be asked to track their motivation levels and accomplishments during the day.  The results would be discussed and published.

Suddenly the questions began.  About getting permission.  Setting up the trial.  Whether subjective or objective results would be more important to track.  Whether their was a large enough sample size.

A curious twelve year old.  Proposing a real experiment.  Debating the structure of the experiment and the questions that should be asked of classmates.

This is how real scientists are equipped and inspired.

Preparing Scientific Heroes in the 21st Century

How do you teach science in the 21st century?  If you want to inspire young heroes to change the world through discoveries, inventions and innovations, our belief is that you don’t “teach” science at all.

Why not?  Because when you study the lives of world changing scientists, you realize that these heroes weren’t “taught” science in a traditional way.  Sterile historical experiments and textbooks do not provoke the imagination.  And the indoctrination of Scientism – that science is the ruling authority in the modern world and can explain the entire universe – discourages the irreverent curiosity and maverick spirit that lead to new breakthroughs.

Our goal is to equip and inspire our Acton Eagles to be brave scientific paradigm busters, puzzler creators and data gathers, even if they never choose science as a calling.  We invite them to deeply study the lives of paradigm busters like Galileo and Einstein, citizen-scientists like Benjamin Franklin and tireless trial and error scientific entrepreneurs like Thomas Edison or the pioneers at Bell Labs.

In the curriculum, we continually refer to Thomas Khun’s Theory of Scientific Revolutions, the paradigm shifts in the past and the brave heroes who led them, emphasizing how today’s accepted truths may be overthrown by future mavericks.

In real world projects our Eagles face the tensions between competing paradigms and heroes, learning to be skeptics who seek to disprove theories, gaining a practical understanding in hands-on challenges of topics like electricity, chemistry, genetics, biology, physics and cosmology, to name a few.

We want our Eagles to experience firsthand the ego clashes, catfights, accidents, missteps and reversals that made science, by standing in the shoes of Newton or Galileo or Einstein.  To see how scientific advances begin as stories, created in the minds of heroes, influenced by emotions and political intrigue, leading to theories, experiments, inventions  and eventually world changing innovations, all subject to later being overturned by new discoveries or innovations created in a competitive marketplace.

We long for our Eagles to be deeply curious and awed by the mysteries of the natural world and to focus more on provocative questions than answers.  That’s why we’ll often revisit the debate between Francis Bacon and Adam Smith.

Is Bacon correct that discovery leads to invention to innovation in an orderly process, and that government support of institutionalized science is the key to progress?

Or is Adam Smith correct that tinkering with real world problems, adding investment to old science in pursuit of practical trial and error experiments, in places like Edison’s Menlo Park lab and Bell Laboratories, creates the wealth that allows us to invest in basic science?

Teach science as a dry series of facts and an arrogant institutional worldview?  Never.

Expose Eagles to the rich history of scientific creative destruction, debating hard questions in the shoes of real world heroes?  Absolutely.

Equip them with the courage to ask difficult questions and seek their own truth, with the practical skills to design and launch trial and error experiments and the humility to admit when they are wrong?

Now that would be a real scientific advance, wouldn’t it?

Shifting paradigms

Today we started to consolidate all of the learning that’s taken place in the last four weeks, by beginning to reorganize and synthesize the portfolios in preparation for
Friday’s celebration.

Eagles also revisited and refilmed their paradigm mini-film projects, each choosing a scientific hero who changed the world by having the courage to introduce a totally new way of looking at the natural world.

Researching scientific heroes.

A rough draft of the timeline for 14 scientific paradigm shifts.

A pictograph of how scientific paradigms are related today.

Ms Abigail continued with the work on the major “How does the past determine the future?” film project.

Some nice words about AA MS from education disruption guru Carolyn VanderArk, who visited a few weeks ago:

Ending week four

“Is this really the end of the fourth week?” asked one Eagle as we packed up for the day.

“Yes, hard to believe,” I replied. “Did time go by this quickly at your old school?”

“Gosh no.  School days just seemed to drag on forever.”

I remembered the words of one student, the first week of class: “Fun and hard don’t have to be opposites.”  No, they don’t.  Our Eagles have proved that fun and hard work can go hand and hand, when you hand the freedom and responsibility over to a class.

Our Eagles spent most of Friday finishing the last of the standardized tests, working on their MyHJ ‘Stars and Steppingstones” interview preparation and finishing up their scientific paradigm videos and time lines.

Below is a picture of the beginnings of their Paradigm timeline, which captures the fourteen paradigm shifts they’ve independently researched.

Eagles also – entirely on their own – made a list of thank you notes to write, assigned authors, and completed the letters.

Next week we begin to slow the learning rhythm in anticipation of the end of the session, launching the Galileo Trial Debate experience on Monday and continuing core skills, but otherwise beginning to synthesize the learning portfolios for Friday’s exhibition and celebration.

You see, a learning community isn’t like a factory.  It’s more like a living organism, with energy lows and highs and patterns, a combination of the individual learning paths of our young flesh and blood heroes in the making.  There are times to work hard, and times to slow and reflect.

As a Guide, you can lightly touch with an encouraging word and shape around the edges, but mainly you are along for a glorious ride.  The sooner we Guides realize this, the better.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch….

A pretty amazing two days of scientific experimentation “in the wild.”

We started our scientific expedition with a Socratic discussion on the one hour drive to the ranch.  Eagles  debated: (a) which of the six experiments we would conduct was the most important to the world (see previous post); (b) whether or not it would be because of the sheer value of discovery, invention or innovation; and (c) whether the scientific role of Paradigm Buster; Puzzle Poser  or Data-Gatherer best suited their personal gifts.

Eagles also practiced their “paradigm video” stories, and in each car we developed “rules of engagement” as to how scientists would act on a real expedition (these would be combined to determine how we worked with each other on the trip.)

As soon as we arrived, it was time for science – and the chance to earn the ingredients for smore’s by solving scientific puzzles .  Some photos from a few of the real world challenges:

Using trigonometry to find the height of a tree (also helpful for navigation.)

Levers – “Give me a place to stand and I’ll move the world!”

Using the Pythagorean theory for surveying.

Archimedes and buoyancy: “Is the crown pure gold or not?”

Even scientists need some fun – so we took a break for obstacle course practice and a swim in the river.

Below, Mr. Temp leads a Hero’s Journey session about picking role models for Stars and Steppingstones interviews.

Above, our experiments with Radians and the Heavens is thwarted by an overcast, but we were entertained by star gazing myths, smore’s and the Eagles’ gratitude moments.  Some of us even got a few hours of sleep.

We ended the trip with a pre-dawn ceremony at the top of Lone Mountain – 360 degree views for miles around — with each Eagle leaving his or her gratitude object, and seeing for the first time the Founding Eagle’s plaque that will forever mark the pioneering efforts of this first Eagle Middle school class.

Then it was back to Austin, on the way listening to stories about Archimedes, Copernicus and Galileo, in preparation for next week’s debate.  (And yes, a few Eagles even took a nap when we got back.)

Many thanks for all the parents and Guides who joined in for the adventure!

3.  Finally, and most importantly, ask what behaviors would be appropriate for a  scientist on an important scientific mission.  Ask one student to keep a list that we can discuss when you arrive.

Preparing for a Paradigm Shift

Today we prepared for the scientific expedition to the ranch, by continuing to prepare the following scientific experiments and work on the paradigm film.

Some questions we asked:

Question I: The Value of Discovery, Invention and Innovation

If you were king, which of the scientific challenges below would be worth supporting with money and attention?  Why?

1.  Geometry and surveying:

2.  Trigonometry and trees

3.  Buoyancy and crowns

4.  Radians and the heavens

5.   Time and timekeeping

6.  Levers and the power to move.

Question II:  The Value of Scientists

 Which scientist has added more value to science: the Discoverer; the Puzzle Poser who proposes puzzles to be solved or the Data-Man, the person who carefully collects and measures data?  Which are your gifts best suited for?  Why?

Question III:  Paradigm shifts

 Do any of the discoveries above qualify as paradigm shifts?  Why or why not?

In Art, Eagles continued to work on their self portraits.

Apprentice scientists prepare for real world science

We lightened the core skills workload today, focusing our Khan work on the Pythagorean Theory in order to get ready for our “applied science” ranch trip on Wednesday

Ms Abigail continued her discussion with students about what makes a good story, including a “save the cat” moment to make your lead character likable. Eagles will be practicing their storytelling, writing and filmmaking skills, first honing their scientific paradigm stories, and then shortly thereafter beginning work on a separate film project that will require them to create, pitch, write and film on the question: “Does the past determine the future?”

During project time, Eagles broke into teams to make sundials, inclinometers and star finders that they will use to execute real world science experiments on the ranch.

What’s your paradigm?

After a morning of core skills and reading, writing and math – and PE –  today in project time we introduced our first scientific challenge.

Unlike many schools, which focus on the scientific method itself as the glue for a disparate smorgasbord of scientific topis, and often veer dangerously close to Scientism (science explains everything), we’re going to take a more Socratic, skeptical – and, well – scientific view of science as a whole, and expand from scientific discovery alone, to include invention and innovation.

That means using Thomas Kuhn’s Theory of Scientific Revolutions – or paradigm shifts – as our jumping off place.  So today we introduced a series of challenges about paradigms and watched videos on the topic and discussed the following questions:

1. What is more important in science – the scientific method itself or paradigm shifts?

2. Who accomplishes more: paradigm busters; those who pose and ponder puzzles; or those who do the hard work of collecting data?

3.  What matters more: discovery, invention or innovation?

Eagles then chose from a list of scientific heroes and paradigms the one person and period they wanted to research and soon were hard at work.  We’ll get to see their work in  an end of session public demonstration.

Above – students signing up for their scientific heroes and paradigms.

Next week – the ranch trip, where we will apply math and the scientific method in the real world.

Below: Eagles at the new Acton Bistro.