Dropping the Moon

Teacher Innovator Institute Day 4: Thursday, July 18, 2019

Cari points out dust bunnies

Dr. Cari Corrigan points out a pre-solar grain in a fragment of the Allende Meteorite which fell in Mexico in 1969. It is the oldest object on Earth and formed in the early solar system 4.65 billion years ago.

On Thursday, July 18, 2019 we were in two locations on the National Mall for our Teacher Innovator Institute. We started in the Museum of Natural History and ended in the American History Museum.

Big guy

Not something you want to meet while out surfing . . . this thing is nearly 50 feet long.

The Meteorite Collection

We took the Metro System to Metro Central and then to the Archive stop and walked to the Natural History museum. It was already turning out to be a stiflingly hot day, with a record setting heat wave in Washington, D.C. and 70% humidity. I was glad to sit inside the atrium waiting for the museum to open, because at least the air conditioning inside was blowing through the doors into the atrium. Separated in cohorts, then the 2019 cohort walked into the museum to the meteorite collection where we further split into two groups. My group was asked to hang out for about an hour and to look for something in the museum that represented us. I had already done that on Tuesday when I found the trilobites from western Utah, so I went in search of something to eat as I hadn’t had much breakfast. My supplies from the Target run on Saturday we getting depleted. I found the museum’s café and had some overpriced food just to keep myself together for the rest of the morning. I also took photos of a model of a megalodon, the largest shark ever to grace the planet.

Hope Diamond

The Hope Diamond, the most infamous of all diamonds on Earth. It started as the Blue Mogul and probably came from the Golconda mine, but was recut into its current form.

We met back upstairs in the meteorite collection, where Dr. Cari Corrigan led us through an almost hidden set of doors and through security systems to the meteorite vault. It had a long table in the center with storage cabinets and lockers along the walls. A poster at one end advertized a “cool” vacation trip to collect meteorites in Antarctica. We donned gloves as Dr. Corrigan explained the meteorites she was showing us. With each one, she handed it around so that we could pick it up in our own hands and photograph it. Each one was more interesting than the last, and she told stories of how they were found and identified.

Ann Hodges and her meteorite

A photo of Ann Hodges and her doctor, Moody Jacobs along with a fragment of the meteorite that hit her in 1954.

We began with a piece of a meteorite that had crashed through the roof of a house in Sylacauga, Alabama in 1954. It bounced off a radio and smacked Ann Hodges in the hip as she was napping. This is the only known meteorite to have actually hit a human being, and odds of this are astronomical (sorry about the pun). You have a better chance of being sucked up by a tornado, blown across the state by a hurricane, and hit by lightning all at the same time. The result was a nasty bruise and instant celebrity that Ann wasn’t ready for and didn’t welcome.

Red Malibu with dent

A 1980 red Chevy Mailbu that was smashed by a 26.5 pound meteorite in Peekskill, NY in 1992. Thousands of people saw the green fireball streak across the sky during football games on that Friday night in October.

The next meteorite smashed into the back end of a red Chevy Malibu parked in Peekskill, New York in 1992. The bright, greenish fireball was witnessed by thousands across the Eastern United States. It was a Friday evening in October, so many people who were filming local football games caught the fireball on camera. It broke up over Kentucky, passed over West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and hit the ground in Peekskill. One piece of it brought a bit of fame and fortune to the 18-year-old owner of the car, Michelle Knapp. She had recently bought the car for $400 and sold it to a meteorite collector for $25,000. The meteorite itself was sold by her family for $50,000.

Peekskill meteorite

In the plastic case is a thin section of the Peekskill meteorite and photos of the family holding the 26.5 pound chunk.

The next meteorite was the largest piece we got to see. Dr. Corrigan showed us the largely gray fragment with white inclusions and said it was a piece of a meteorite that landed near Allende, Mexico in 1969. Planetary scientists descended (sorry, more puns) on the town and recovered hundreds of pieces. Using radiometric dating, they found it was the oldest meteorite yet recovered and its gray areas dated to 4.65 billion years ago. The white areas were “dust bunnies” that formed from pre-solar grains, parts of which have been dated to over 5 billion years old. That makes this the oldest known object on Earth that has remained substantially unaltered. Technically, all of the atoms in our bodies are much older than the solar system, but they have been recombined so many times that we can’t know their origin. The Allende meteorite, except for a brief burning crash through Earth’s atmosphere, has remained unchanged since our solar system started to form. And I got to hold a piece of it – the oldest object on Earth!

Me with Allende meteorite

David Black holding a section of the Allende Meteorite, the oldest object on Earth at 4.65 billion years.

Dr. Corrigan also passed around a fragment of the Chelyabinsk meteorite that exploded over Russia in 2013. It was the most documented of all meteorites, with dashboard cameras from cars all over that part of Siberia recording the event, as well as videos of the shockwave as it blasted out windows all over the city. I asked her if any fragments of the Tunguska event of 1908 were ever recovered, and she said no. That air burst was the most violent meteor event in recorded history. The glow from that explosion was seen as far as Paris and London.

Me with Chelyabinsk piece

A fragment of the Chelyabinsk meteorite which exploded over Siberia in 2013.

She then passed out several meteorites that came from the moon, blasted off by impacts and traveling through space to land on Antarctica. Some of the pieces were enclosed in domes or in plastic boxes, but one was a small piece she handed around by itself. As I was holding it in my right hand and trying to photograph it with my left, I didn’t have the tactile sense I needed because of the gloves. It slipped from my hand and dropped to the floor.

I dropped the Moon.

Lunar meteorite I dropped

This is a piece of the Moon. Right before I dropped it . . .

Fortunately Dr. Corrigan didn’t see this happen as I was on the other side of the table from her, but several of the other teachers around me were aghast. So was I. Even more fortunately, it did not break and appeared undamaged. Later, as I thought about it, it occurred to me that this small rock had been through quite a bit already – it was blasted off the Moon by a violent impact, traveled through the vacuum of space for 250,000 miles before burning through Earth’s atmosphere to smash into a glacier in Antarctica, then get ground by glacial forces over thousands of years until it was inexorably pushed up onto the side of a mountain range, collected by planetologists, and brought back to the U.S. for storage and analysis. A drop from my hand three feet to the floor was unlikely to damage it, but I was still terribly embarrassed to have added insult to injury for this poor little rock.

Lunar meteorite in dome

Another lunar meteorite protected in a plexiglas dome.

This incident has now been added to my all-time most embarrassing moments. It ranks number six. Number five was having a major Halloween costume malfunction in front of a class of 8th graders three years ago. Number four was the “How to Handle a Woman” debacle when a group of us tried out for a solo and ensemble competition in high school. The try out did not go well. The choir director was trying so hard not to laugh that his face turned purple. Number three was the time I got neodymium magnets stuck up my nose while presenting a lesson activity on gravity assist maneuvers to a group of 25 high school teachers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2002. I don’t talk about numbers two and one.

Me holding Mars

Me holding a piece of Mars. Notice the extra hand under mine – Marc wanted to be certain I didn’t drop this, too.

A Chunk of Mars

I did my best to recover, but the other teachers were a lot more cautious about letting me handle the meteorites on my own. Dr. Corrigan then explained a meteorite that had puzzled all the experts. It had definitely not come from an asteroid or other conventional source. Finally, a scientist got the idea to analyze small pockets of gas trapped inside the meteorite and discovered they matched the isotopes of air on Mars. A large asteroid impact had blasted this rock off of the surface of Mars, then it had traveled through the solar system for untold millions of years before landing on Earth. It joins a handful of known pieces of Mars on Earth, and certainly lends credence to the theories of panspermia, that if life started on Mars or on Earth, it could have spread throughout the solar system by meteorite impacts.

Meteorite group

Part of the 2019 TII cohort with Dr. Cari Corrigan in the meteorite collection at the American Museum of Natural History.

We took a group photo and thanked Dr. Corrigan, then returned to the main meteorite collection. We broke for lunch, and I ate a Philly cheesesteak sandwich from a vendor truck outside the museum.

AMerican history inside sign

An interior sign for the National Museum of American History, where we spent the afternoon. It has changed a great deal since the last time I was here.

American History Museum

We met after lunch in the National Museum of American History in a back conference room behind the Scratch Lab. We had several presentations on such subjects as free online graphing calculator simulators and some Mars science activities, although the presenters were again going way too fast. Betty Jo spoke briefly about how her students successfully grew potatoes in Mars soil simulant, but they had to do quite a bit of pH neutralization before the plants would grow well. We built a water filtration system using plastic bottles and common materials such as activated charcoal and pasta.

Filtering activity

A water filtration system using common materials to filter the sludge in the bottle at right.

We also had a presentation on the Smithsonian’s Learning Lab system, which allows a user to search through tens of thousands of artifacts and put together customized online tours and scavenger hunts, add notes and quizzes, and make user experiences for students to follow. I can see this being useful as part of my lunar lessons and other lesson plans to explore objects in the Smithsonian collection. Here is the website: https://learninglab.si.edu/

While we were making the filtration system, my roommate, Jay Hentzen, collapsed onto the floor. He had not been feeling well that morning, and suddenly had been hit by extreme pain. He had to go to an emergency room, where they found he was suffering from a kidney stone. Having had one myself ten years ago, I can relate to the pain he is going through.

Happy hour group

Part of our group at the restaurant on Thursday, July 18

We walked from the American History Museum up to Gallery Place where we were scheduled for a group dinner and happy hour at a restaurant and bar in Chinatown. On our way we passed by the Chinese-Chilean fusion restaurant and the Mongolian barbeque place I had eaten at three years before on my first Einstein interview trip, and we passed through the area I had stayed in two years ago on my Research Data Teacher Conference trip. I’ve gotten to know this part of D.C. pretty well.

Chinatown gate

Gate to Chinatown. Sorry it is washed out – my camera was still set for low light conditions. I am fairly familiar with this area, and there are some great restaurants.

The restaurant had pasta and pizza bars and a Coke Freestyle machine. My pizza was good and I talked with Seth, Scott, Beth, and some of the other 2018 cohort. After the dinner, others wanted to continue on to other bars, but I needed to get back to the dorms to do laundry; I’m not into the bar scene. I got on the Metro next door at Gallery Place and headed back to Cleveland Park, where I got off and walked to the Target store to buy laundry detergent and more food. Back at the dorms I dropped off my stuff, then walked over into campus to the student union building and put some money on my key card. I went back to the dorms and used the card to do a load of laundry while I called my family at home, as I have done each evening.


The Batmobile in the American History Museum.

I finished the evening grading papers that had been shared with me via Google Docs from my students and the substitute teacher and wrote up my final lesson plans for tomorrow. I had printed out all the worksheets prior to leaving last week, so all I had to do was write up final instructions for the sub. Jay made it back to the dorm late and was still in some pain, but was on pain relievers and thought he might have passed the stone already.

Countdown clock

Counting down to the launch of the Washington Monument on Friday night.


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At the Udvar-Hazy Center

Teacher Innovator Institute Day 3: Wed., July 17, 2019

Group inside dome-s

Teacher Innovator Institute 2019 cohort inside the geodesic dome we built

On our third full day of the Teacher Innovator Institute we were at the National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center again near Dulles International Airport. We spent the morning completing two team building design challenges and the afternoon in breakout sessions including one on STEAM activities and another on coding resources. We also heard a panel discussion by two World War II veteran airmen, including one of the Tuskegee airmen.

Straw design

Shay, Elizabeth, and Darbie constructing a tetrahedron from StrawBees.

Launching a Project with a Driving Question

A 13-year CTE teacher from Loudoun County Schools led a discussion on how to kick off a PBL experience with a driving question. The question, properly formulated and driven by the students, forms the structure around which learning occurs in a project. He pitched the driving question for us: How can we, as aerospace engineers, construct a structure that is portable, strong, easy to assemble in a short amount of time, and that can withstand the environment of Mars?

Straw building

Megan and Jay working on a StrawBees structural design.

This driving question should be broad enough and deep enough to lead to other, more detailed questions, such as: What kind of structure (size, shape, etc.)? What do we mean by portable? How strong does it have to be? What kinds of materials do we have to work with? How easy to assemble does it need to be, and in what amount of time? And, of course, what is the environment of Mars like?

Each of these sub-questions can be further divided, and more details added. Do we want the structure to be above or below ground? What is its purpose? Do we only have the materials available on Mars to work with, or do we bring the parts with use? How light does it have to be, and does it need to be something one person can carry, or can it be transported by a rover or other vehicle? How do we enter and exit it without letting air out (or Mars atmosphere or dust in), and do our spacesuits have to come inside or stay outside? Under the environmental conditions on Mars, what is the temperature range it will have to withstand, and the wind conditions, and the radiation environment? The answers to these questions provide the constraints, or specifications, of the engineering project.

Testing straw design

Testing the StrawBees structure by inflating a balloon inside.

Josh made a point that as teachers, we should NOT tell our students what the questions are or the answers. As they formulate both the questions and look up information to answer them, they will be doing the learning on their own in a student-centered fashion without us doing more than acting as guides on the side. The point is to let the students figure out what they need to know to be successful. We need to stand back and let them learn. Too often as teachers we get in the way of student learning.

Mike tests straw design

Mike Spiedel tests a StrawBee structure while Colleen holds her breath

Often to help students formulate questions, it can be important to have them construct a simple initial prototype to get a feel for the problems they face. To this end, Josh was joined by Mike Speidel, also with Loudon County Schools assigned to teach at the Udvar-Hazy Center, to show us a construction system called StrawBees. They are a series of vinyl plastic connectors that can be cut using a Cricut machine or 3D printed and which attach drinking straws together to make structures. He handed out kits to each table of teachers and asked us to create a prototype habitat that would be tested by sticking a balloon inside, then blowing it up until something broke.

I suggested an octahedral shape, which we tried, but it failed. We eventually succeeded with a more flexible structure that would give when the balloon inflated. Other teams got there first, but we did get there before the time was up.

Flak Bait restoration

Panoramic photo of Flak Bait, a World War II B-24 bomber being restored at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

Geodesic Dome Emergency Shelter on Mars

Now it was time to build the larger structure, which would be a geodesic dome made from large PVC pieces and custom connectors from a Do-It-Yourself furniture company. While the team leader volunteers planned, I took some stairs up to the second floor where I could overlook the Discovery shuttle. Through a back window I saw the restoration area of the Center, where they are refurbishing and repairing a World War II bomber called Flack Bait. I took a panoramic shot of this and the shuttle, and a model of the Pathfinder mission.

Pathfinder from above

Engineering test model of the Pathfinder mission and Sojourner Rover

As the entire 30-person 2019 group began to assemble the dome, I found myself volunteering for the role of observer and photographer. This is partly because I had a good camera, but also because of my training in organizational behavior and management, which is my masters degree. I am used to running team-building activities as an observer and it is hard to break myself out of that role. So as the assembly started, I took many photos and video clips as the structure rose from the concrete floor behind the shuttle. It progressed well, but I could see a coming problem – the dome was too big to easily reach the top for construction and there were no ladders to stand on. One of the teachers was a cheerleader coach and suggested building a human pyramid, but that wouldn’t fly (not with a concrete floor). Eventually a solution was found: Build the top of the dome on the side, then move it in place and flip it over onto the top and bolt it down. We managed to build the whole dome and get everyone inside with 20 seconds to spare on the hour time limit.

Planning dome

The 2019 cohort planning how to build the geodesic dome Mars emergency shelter

We returned to the classroom and debriefed. Josh spoke of how to effectively journal an experience so that optimum student learning can occur. As I reflected, I had to think of why I tend to take the observer role. What do I fear about getting into the thick of things in a group activity? I fear not being listened to, which tends to happen when I am forced into a group situation. I don’t advocate for myself very well. Or I go too far and come off as the know-it-all (like when I play Trivial Pursuit with friends), then wind up being wrong. I hate being wrong in front of a group, so I stand aside and let others make decisions or I disengage and become the observer to avoid being put in that position.

Megan directing

Organizing materials for the dome

Well, enough self-assessment and pop psychology.

Top goes on

Fastening on the top of the dome, which had to be built on the side and lifted by the entire group into place.

Breakout Sessions

After lunch we broke in to sessions and I choose to stay in the main classroom to hear Tina, Betty Joe, Jen (from Utah), and Brinley of the 2018 cohort present on STEAM activities. I tried to take notes, but it was a fire hose of information and my notes are fragmentary at best. Hopefully I will have time to go through the online group folder where all of these lesson plans are located. I do see how a Cricut machine could come in handy. Jen talked about taking plain colored T-shirts and laying out vinyl shapes, then spraying the shirt with bleach to make a white area around the shapes. This is the opposite of using shapes to block the light for a blueprint T-shirt like we did last week in my STEAM class. We did do one activity as a group to take a clear plastic plate and paint it with Sharpie markets, then use heat guns to make Shrinky Dinks out of them. I’ve done this before using plastic cups melted in a toaster oven, but I like the larger size of the plates.

Shrinky dink before

A colored plastic plate before heating and shrinking with a hot air gun, along with a Moon themed Oreo cookie.

During the second breakout session I went to the other room to hear Scott, Beth, and Christina talk about video editing tools and coding resources. I wrote down a lot of sites for teaching beginning coding, even to lower elementary students. They also talked about using Minecraft, Arduinos, and Raspberry Pis. Again, I took as many notes as I could and hope to have time to check everything out before school starts up again.

Completed shrinky dink

Colored plastic plate after heating and shrinking

A Tuskegee Airman

We walked out into the main hangar area to hear two World War II veteran aviators speak of their experiences. One was Colonel Charles McGee, who was trained as a pilot at Tuskegee, Alabama and is the only known pilot to fly over 100 combat missions in each of three wars: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam for over 500 total missions. It was inspiring to hear him speak – he is going to be 100 years old this year.

WWII airmen

Two veteran aviators from World War II, including Col. Charles McGee, one of the Tuskegee Airmen and the only pilot to have flown over 100 combat missions in each of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

The other speaker, whose name I did not write down, was a pilot of a B-24 bomber shot down over Germany. He survived when the rest of his crewmates did not. He had been wearing a parachute because he was too short to reach the airplane control pedals and the chute helped push him forward in his seat. When is plane was shot down and broke in two, he was the only one wearing a chute.

Group at Georgetown restaurant

A group of us at an Italian restaurant in Georgetown

Upon returning to American University, we rested for an hour or so and then a group of us ordered several Ubers and we ate at an Italian restaurant in Georgetown. It was a fun group and I enjoyed getting to know the other teachers better. I never did finish my leftovers.

Manned Maneuvering Unit

Manned Maneuvering Unit on display at the Air and Space Museum

Building bottom ring

Building the bottom ring

First crosspiece 2

The first level takes shape

Final parts go together

Beginning to shape up

The geodesic dome begins to take shape

Group inside finished dome

2019 Cohort of the Teacher Innovator Institute inside the finished Mars shelter

Hazy with Discovery

The space shuttle Discovery at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

Discovery pano

A panoramic photograph of Space Shuttle Discovery

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I Spy With My Little Eye

Day Two of the Teacher Innovator Institute; July 16, 2019

Bond car 2

This car comes with a few extra features . . . the famous Aston Martin that was driven by James Bond in the International Spy Museum.

On this, the second full day of our Institute, we were in and around the National Mall in the new International Spy Museum and the National Museum of Natural History. I learned about the newest practices for informal science education, some of the weird espionage moments in history, and various types of robotics. I found some connections to my local geology and family history, and explored the rock and mineral collections of the Smithsonian.

Spy museum entrance

Entrance to the International Spy Museum.

No Cone of Silence

We rode the shuttle bus to Tenleytown and took the Metro system to L’Enfant Plaza, where the new International Spy Museum is located. After a stop at Starbucks at the top of the escalators, we walked to the museum. This exit from L’Enfant was the same that I took mistakenly the last time I was here for the Einstein Fellowship interviews. I hope to get this station figured out finally so that I can always take the right exit depending on where I want to go. Several of them have astronaut dogs pointing, but the one without the astronaut is the Washington and 7th St. exit, which leads to the Air and Space Museum.

I spy Monic

Monic, one of the teachers from Riverside, CA posing in the Spy sculpture outside the International Spy Museum.

We took some photos outside with the 3D SPY sculpture then were ushered into the lobby past the James Bond Austin Martin car to a classroom on the second floor. This museum has only been opened for a few months, and the classroom space is brand new. We got badges and went up to the fifth floor to begin our missions. Based on input about your personality, an actual spy persona is loaded into your badge and you are required to travel through the museum from station to station, picking up equipment, traveling to locations, collecting intelligence, sending it to headquarters, and analyzing the information to draw conclusions. This process is very much like the scientific method; intelligence operations must gather and analyze and interpret data to draw conclusions about possible threats. My persona was an art dealer, and I picked the wrong type of equipment for my mission at the first station. Q would have been frustrated with me. All of the choices are loaded onto the card at interactive computer stations based on the content of each room of the museum as you spiral down through the floors.

US Intelligence agencies

Different intelligence agencies of the U.S government.

It started with real-life spy biographies on video panels on the walls, done by actors except for a real spy who had infiltrated Al Qaeda and is now in hiding. Mata Hari was one of the examples, and when I mentioned to a docent that Mata Hari means “the Sun” in Bahasa Indonesia, she said that she already knew that. I guess I should let the experts do their job and stop going into teacher mode.

MAta Hari exhibit

An exhibit on Mata Hari, the famous femme fatale. I learned while I was in Indonesia that her name actually means “the sun” in Bahasa Indonesia.

We progressed through the rooms and levels, and there was so much to see and do that I didn’t get through the entire mission, but it was fascinating and interactive and engaging, just what a museum experience should be for a visitor. There was a display on the infamous Enigma machine and how it was decoded at Bletchley Park as part of the Ultra Secret. There was a section of the Berlin tunnel, dug from Western Berlin under the wall to pick up electronic transmissions and signals from the Soviet side in East Berlin. There was a display on the U2 spy plane and the Gary Powers incident, and so much more. Examples ranged from ancient espionage to modern examples, with stories from across history and many nations. I wish I had the time to go back.

Enigma machines

The Enigma machines with code wheels that could produce trillions upon trillions of possible combinations.

As I progressed through the levels, the music that kept playing in my mind was a combination of the James Bond theme and the opening theme from “Get Smart.” They do have some examples of fictional espionage in the museum, such as Emma Peale and James Bond, but I was a bit disappointed not to find a series of slamming walls, a shoe phone, and a functioning Cone of Silence.

Berlin tunnel

A section of a tunnel dug under East Berlin to tap into the Soviet communication systems.

After our two hours to explore was up, I bought myself a T-shirt in the gift shop. We then re-convened in the classroom on the second floor and the museum’s historian, Vince Houghton, author of the new book Nuking the Moon, spoke to us about some of the crazy espionage schemes thought up (but not successfully developed) through history. There was the infamous Glomar Explorer of the 1970s, which was built by Howard Hughes’ companies to supposedly pick up manganese nodules from the ocean floor but was really built to recover a sunken Soviet submarine, attempts at mind-control devices, and using cats implanted with microphones as mobile listening devices to sneak into foreign embassies.

Nuking the Moon

Nuking the Moon, a book on bizarre spy schemes by historian Vince Houghton.

I have been through many museums and have worked with informal science educators. I’ve even applied to be one. I wish that all museum experiences could be as engaging and engrossing as the Spy museum was for me. It left me wanting more. Two hours was not nearly enough time. I could go through several times and since I would have a different persona, the experience would be different each time. It was interactive, well thought through, and educated me without seeming like I was in school or in a classroom. This is what state-of-the-art informal science education should be like.

Nuking Moon author

Historian Vince Houghton spoke to us about some of the more bizarre espionage attempts, including turing a cat into a mobile listening device.

My Original Project Idea

As I was writing this, I referred to my notes about the Institute taken in a black notebook. I had to switch to this notebook part way through the Institute because I filled up my red notebook. As I searched for the entry for this day, I went back a bit too far and came across something written on March 25, 2018 where I had described my interview for the Einstein Fellowship in Washington, D.C. a few weeks before. I thought things went well, but of the 4-5 people interviewing for the Noyce Scholarship position, I was not the one selected. As I waited for my phone to ring with an offer of a position, day after day passed and I started giving up hope. Then I had an interesting dream that led me to realize that all would be well and that what I sought was coming soon and would not require me to move to Washington, D.C. or uproot my family. The next day I received an e-mail from Nathan Smith, a Utah State University CTE coordinator who sends out a monthly newsletter of opportunities. The e-mail informed us about the Teacher Innovator Institute and that the deadline was coming up soon. I thought this must be the answer to my dream, and I applied for the Institute last year.

David von Wollanstein

David Black as Sir Francis Walsingham, master spy for Queen Elizabeth I. I’ve always secretly desired to be a swaggering rascal . . .

My notes in the notebook went into some detail on the project I wanted to develop, and it was certainly ambitious. Too ambitious to be successful, which is probably why I wasn’t selected. My last note in the notebook was a kind of “Now what?” analysis. I had been so certain this was the answer for me, but was disappointed. Then my son got sick and had to be hospitalized right during the time of the Institute, so it was a good thing I wasn’t selected. Now, a year later, without reading the section above it, I drew a line through the notebook and began writing notes from the Institute. I got selected this time because I pared down my project to something manageable and focused on my middle school experience. The other Utahns selected last year must have read Nathan Smith’s e-mail, too – at least John Teuscher said that’s why he applied. Now the answer from my dream has come, just a year later than expected – and here I am.

U2 flight suit

Flight suit for the U2 spy plane.

The need for my original project idea has not gone away. It was to develop more interactivity for the Air and Space Museum similar to what I just saw at the Spy Museum. I find out now that the Air and Space Museum at the Mall is being renovated – the western half is already closed down, and all the exhibits will be redone, renamed, and redesigned for greater visitor engagement just as I had envisioned last year. We will even do some focus groups later this week to analyze various exhibits to provide feedback for improvements. In about four years, the place will be much different. I see opportunities for doing similar things with museums in Utah, perhaps incorporating virtual reality and augmented reality through the Black Box Innovation Group concept I have been developing. Stay tuned . . .

Group outside Spy

Teacher group outside of the Spy Museum before breaking for lunch.

Robotics Systems

We separated for lunch, which I ate at Popeye’s Chicken at the food court leading in to L’Enfant Plaza. A group of us rode the Blue Line two stops up National Archives and walked from there to the Museum of Natural History through the blisteringly hot and humid weather. We waited outside until the entire group could go through the entrance metal detectors, get our badges, and go up several flights of stairs to a conference room.

My right leg is still hurting and swollen from overdoing things on Sunday, so climbing the stairs was a bit challenging.

Group outside Natural history

Waiting outside the Natural History Museum

The conference room was a bit small for all of us, but we managed. We started with a session of 2018ers demonstrating various types of robotics systems that we can choose to use in our classes, ranging from Ozobots to Spheros to LEGO EV3 and Wedo. Steve and Keith demonstrated the Parrot Drone quadcopters and how to program them. For Ozobots, we looked at using the color codes to teach mathematics equations among other ideas. We saw ideas for using Spheros to do art – having them roll through puddles of colored paint while protected with waterproof skins. We could use their sensors to turn into Mars probes on simulated terrains.

Quad copter

Demonstrating how to use a Parrot Drone quadcopter.

Our final session of the day was a breakout, and I stayed in the room to learn about design challenges from Shaoni and John and we brainstormed a list of possible ideas – there are so many and I was writing fast, so it is a bit hard to make out my notes.

Exploring the Natural History Museum

We finished a bit early, around 3:00, so that the GooseChase teams could go out to gather their points. I was not about to run around D.C. in the high heat and humidity with my gimpy leg, so I decided to stay in the Natural History Museum and explore.

Millard County trilobite

A trilobite fossil in the Natural History Museum that comes from the House Range in Western Utah, near where I grew up. My grandfather used to take me to dig up trilobites in the area near Antelope Springs.

I have been here before, including ten years ago when I came here with my daughter and two youngest sons. I took many photos in the meteorite, mineral, and gemstone galleries that I used in my beryllium videos and elsewhere, so I wasn’t as focused on photographing everything. I wanted to focus on my TII project and to look around through some other galleries. I was also killing time because we were meeting with one of the observatory directors at the Air and Space Museum at 7:00, so I took my time.

Banded iron deposits

Banded iron oxide deposits from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. When cyanobacteria flooded the Earth’s atmosphere with free oxygen in the Great Oxygenation Event (which may be the greatest environmental catastrophe of all time), it oxidized vast amounts of iron in the oceans which precipitated out as these deposits.

I started in a gallery talking about the origin and evolution of life, which I thought would be useful for my biology classes. I found exhibits of different types of life through geologic time, and came across an exhibit of trilobites. Coming from Millard County, Utah, I am familiar with the trilobite fossils in the House Range. My grandfather even had a mining claim for trilobites and used to take me out to the Antelope Springs area collect them. I tried to find his claim site on two occasions a few years ago but got a flat tire on the sharp slate rocks each time. I was happy to see several specimens from the House Range in the Smithsonian Collection. I also took photos of some banded iron deposits from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I hope to get up there some time – my grant application for the National Mining Association’s conference in Marquette, MI this year was denied. These bands are associated with the Great Oxygenation Event when the first cyanobacteria pumped free oxygen into the atmosphere and caused iron dissolved in the oceans to oxidize and precipitate.

Shergotty 2

This is a piece of the famous Shergotty meteorite, which has been identified as coming from Mars.

I then walked upstairs and took photos of meteorites and lunar samples. It was about 4:30, so I found a quiet stairway and sat down to rest, as I was quite tired. There are days when I certainly feel like I am pushing 60, and this was one of them. When the museum closed at 5:00, I walked across the mall and sat in the gardens next to the Smithsonian headquarters building, got a water ice from a vending stand, and ate supper of chili cheese fries at the food court at L’Enfant Plaza again. It was overcast but still quite hot and humid, so I took my time walking and enjoyed not being rushed.

Moon rock lit up

A piece of lunar brecchia brought back from the Apollo missions.

Sun Scopes

Just before 7:00 I walked over to the Air and Space Museum and met up with about 15 other TII teachers who had come to hear about the Phoebe Waterman Haas Observatory. This is a small white dome built onto the patio to the east of the main museum, and is used mostly for sun watching and occasional night sky viewing and star shows. Since it was overcast, we couldn’t see the sun but we were shown the various telescopes and sun screens used.


Emeralds on display in the Natural History Museum

After the brief tour, we rode the Metro system back to the American University dorms. I spent the remaining time that evening uploading photos and writing notes for my substitutes. I was pretty tired after being in the heat all day, and it was nice to take a second shower and cool off a little.

NASM observator tour

Tour of the Phoebe Waterman Haas Observatory at the Air and Space Museum

Mineral spectrum

A spectrum of minerals, showing the wide variety of colors that can come from various minerals, ranging from purple amethyst on the left to red rhodochrosite on the right.



Sapphires on display at the Natural History Museum

Easter Island statue

A Moai statue from Easter Island, carved by the Rapa Nui people.

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Teacher Innovator Institute

Monday, July 15, 2019

Me in spacesuit

David Black posing inside a mockup of a spacesuit outside the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum

This was our first official day of the Teacher Innovator Institute in Washington, D.C. sponsored by the National Air and Space Museum. It was held at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA, which is an extension of the main museum on the National Mall. I had never been to this annex before; it was one of those bucket list items that I finally got to check off.

I applied last year but was not accepted. In some ways I am glad to be part of the second cohort because last year would have been impossible, what with my son being in the hospital for a serious infection and remodeling our kitchen during the same time as the Institute. As a 2019 cohort, we also benefit from lessons learned last year. Between both cohorts there are 59 of us here.

Group waiting for bus 2

A group of TII teachers waiting for the bus to start the first official day of the Institute.

We walked from the dorms at American University across campus to where our bus would pick us up. It was a bit late, and we talked and got to know each other better. We are from around the country, some in small teams from the same schools, some like me are here as individuals. The Institute is funded by an anonymous private donation from a family foundation, and we have speculated which family this might be, but they remain anonymous. It is a generous donation and allows us to attend this Institute for three years and receive a substantial grant in addition to fund travel to conferences and to purchase supplies and equipment for the projects we will develop. For me, one of the best parts will be to attend and help out with the 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Group waiting for bus

A group of teachers, mostly from the 2018 cohort, waiting for the bus.

When the bus arrived I sat and talked with Toni, who told me of some of the creative projects she has done in her classroom including having students create working arcade games out of cardboard. I think this will be a great alternative to my Rube Goldberg project and will teach simple machines in a more structured way.

Hazy Center entrance

Entrance to the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.

It took about an hour to drive out to the annex, which is near Dulles International Airport. We had to drive down through Georgetown, cross the Potomac to Crystal City, then drive out into Virginia amid slow traffic this time of morning. The Udvar-Hazy Center is a huge hangar shaped building that is even larger than the National Mall building and houses an incredible array of air and spacecraft and other artifacts. We unloaded our bus and walked in, depositing our backpacks and personal items in a classroom on the ground floor near the stairs before walking across the hangar floor past the SR-71 Blackbird to the Space Shuttle Discovery in the back hangar area.

Ellen Stofan keynote at TII

Dr. Ellen Stofan welcomes us to the Teacher Innovator Institute. She is speaking under the nose of the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Dr. Ellen Stofan, Director of the Air and Space Museum, was waiting for us and spoke to us, welcoming us to Washington, D.C. and outlining some of the activities going on this week. I asked her about the panel discussion she will be having with Michael Collins on Friday, and she told us more about what the astronauts will be doing this week. After her remarks we had an excellent breakfast while sitting under the nose of the Space Shuttle. After eating I took a few photos before we returned to our classroom.

TII breakfast by shuttle

Teachers for the Institute eating breakfast under the nose of the Space Shuttle Discovery.

We participated in an engineering design contest with our mentors (Shaori took me on as an additional mentee) to build a safe Lunar Lander for two eggs dropped off the second floor balcony. There were some very creative approaches, and this is definitely a group of highly competitive and innovative teachers. We did well with our airbag and parachute concept – similar to Mars rover landers. Neither of our eggs broke, but we did not win the hang time part of the challenge.

Me by Discovery

David Black by the Space Shuttle Discovery at the National Air and Space Museum; July 2019.

We separated by cohorts so that the 2019 group could prepare presentations while we made introductions for ourselves. We ate lunches that we had brought with us in our nice TII backpacks then listened to presentations from the 2018 cohort. I chose to stay and hear Ben and others talk about experiential learning through outdoor science programs. Ben lives in western Virginia and does several large field study projects with his students to gather data on the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including stream and bay environmental studies. Another teacher, Leann, spoke on a new outdoor science park created in the center of Tulsa, Oklahoma. It is designed for students to conduct open-ended field studies and gather data on native plants and animals.

SR 71

The SR-71 Blackbird on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, VA.

Shannon Baldioli, the organizer and leader of the Institute, introduced us to a group GooseChase challenge. This is an app that allows organizers to post questions and challenges concerning a geographical area (or a museum) and teams then post photos or videos, answer questions, or otherwise prove they have completed the challenges. The questions are auto scored, but they can be overridden by the game organizers to add or subtract points or disallow entries. We were supposed to join into teams of six, but after trying to join three different teams and being told they were full, I finally joined a team that was a little less gung-ho about the whole thing. We called ourselves the Slackers and decided to post responses only if we happened to run across them. The other teams were expending a great deal of time and effort trying to win, and I didn’t feel like chasing all over D.C. with my swollen leg. I definitely overdid it yesterday, and am paying the price today. I’ve had to keep it elevated most of the time.

Lunar REceiving lab

The Lunar Receiving Lab, which was on the USS Hornet when they recovered the Apollo 11 astronauts. They had to live inside in isolation for two weeks just to make sure they didn’t bring any Moon bugs back with them. There is a famous photo of Pres. Nixon talking to them through the window at the end to my right.

A NASA van had pulled up outside and we went out to get posters and other bling and to pose inside of a spacesuit mock up. At 4:00 we boarded the bus and returned to American University. For supper a group of us walked a short distance to a restaurant called Wagshals, where I ordered a Reuben sandwich with sourdough bread.

Close Encounters ship

Recognize this? It is the original model for the Mother Ship in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Now imagine it with a lot of colored LED lights and that classic John Williams sound track: “Bom bom bom BAH DAH!” Somewhere on here is supposed to be a small model of R2-D2 but I didn’t find it.

I spent the evening talking to other teachers and working on lesson plans. My classes are still going this first week and I have to send in plans to substitutes and grade papers while I am here. I continue to be greatly impressed by the wide range of creativity and experience of the teachers in both cohorts, and I feel privileged to be here with them. This is already shaping up to be one of the best professional development programs I have participated in.

Jim Irwin suit 3

Jim Irwin’s spacesuit from the Apollo 15 mission, complete with helmet, gloves, and lunar dust.

Milestones of flight mural

This mural is called Milestones of Flight and it is hanging up on the wall on the ground floor of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. I have a copy of this hanging on my wall at school.


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A Cruise of Cohorts

Lincoln with Washington from river

The Lincoln and Washington Memorials at sunset as seen from the Potomac River. This grand staircase was designed so that visitors, coming in from the sea and Chesapeake Bay, would dock here and climb the stairs for their first glimpse at our Capital.

Our second day of the Teacher Innovator Institute (TII) in Washington, D.C was a Sunday and a chance to get acclimated and become acquainted with each other before the actual workshop begins. I walked to the National Cathedral and attended services. As a group of both cohorts, we took a cruise on the Potomac River to Old Town Alexandria.

Flame of fire windo

A stained glass window representing fire (the burning bush, perhaps?) in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

I had visited the National Cathedral once before in 1982 when I lived in Alexandria and worked as a Congressional Intern for Senator Hatch of Utah (who only just retired this last year). Back then I only had a mid-range Ricoh camera without SLR or many focusing or lighting options. Now I have a full SLR digital still and video camera and Adobe Photoshop at my command, so I can do many more things under poor lighting than I could then. I didn’t dress up as I wasn’t planning on attending services but mostly wanted to get some photos of the stained glass windows for when I can complete the Stained Glass Elements Unearthed video started ten years ago.

Mass Ave stroll

My walk down Massachusetts Ave. to the National Cathedral.

National Cathedral was only just over a mile from our dorms at American University. I grabbed my camera and water bottle and headed out after breakfast, walking down Massachusetts Ave. staying as much in the shade as possible. There were quite a few trees until I got to the top of the hill and cut across to the cathedral. I took photos outside and then walked in through the main doors into the nave. Services were going on and I was told not to take photos until after, so I decided to stay and attend after all. The National Cathedral is an Episcopalian Church and services were done in English, with a set structure to the liturgy and a printed program. Chairs were set up all along the nave and across the transept and most were filled. A visiting choir from Ireland provided some hymns, and others were sung by the congregation while standing. Some parts of the liturgy were recited by the Dean, others repeated by the congregation. There were two short sermons, baptisms of about eight babies, and the presentation of the eucharist. Even though this was not a Catholic Mass, I gained some points to add to my Golden Apple book about the structure of the services and the cathedral itself.

Stain glass-blues-Natl Cathedral

Beautiful stained glass windows in the National Cathedral.

Just this last week, as I write this, the leaders of the National Cathedral issued a call for more civility in our discourse and courtesy in everyday life. The text of the sermons given during the service was the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and out need to help each other. I find these messages resonate with me, personally, not just because I am a religious person but because of the great need I see for our nation to come together, not be further divided. How can we ever accomplish something as grand as the Apollo program again unless we put aside our differences and come together. It took a national commitment to get us to the Moon. It will take another commitment to take us back and on to Mars. If we cannot agree to do this and get our hopes and energies behind it, then what hope can we have as a people? A house divided against itself cannot stand.

Cathedral through trees

The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. as I approached it through the trees.

With services over, the congregation was served coffee and donuts while I wandered around and took photos of various parts of the interior, including the stained glass windows with the Space Window that contains a moon rock donated by Michael Collins, as this was the school he attended. I also took photos outside before walking back to the dorms.

Cathecral west facade

Rose window on the west facade of the National Cathedral.

It was a quiet afternoon and I tried to get to know more people in my cohort. I had not been able to open the five locks on the small breakout lockbox that contains our ticket for tomorrow’s breakfast, so I spent some time asking people for hints about how to proceed. My mentor teacher from the 2018 cohort only contacted me once, then I didn’t hear anything more and I found out that she is not here this summer because of a family problem. But other teachers in my cohort were able to give me a starting point for the directional lock, which was the photo of the original Mercury Seven astronauts. I had opened three of the five locks by the time we left for supper.

Space window 2-better

The Space Window in the National Cathedral. In the center of the red circle at the top is a moon rock donated by Michael Collins from the Apollo 11 mission.

About 5:00 a group of us ordered two Ubers to take us to Georgetown to a restaurant, where some of the 2018 cohort were already eating. It is an underground speakeasy kind of place where I ordered some excellent buffalo wings for supper. We then had a short walk as a group down to the waterfront and the docks just upriver from the Watergate complex, where we were to board our cruise. There was a silver Rolls Royce and a black Ferrari parked there while we waited, and I finally met Shannon for the first time. She gave us our ticket vouchers and we boarded the ferry about 7:00.

Bell tower

Bell tower of the National Cathedral. I almost expected Quasimodo to peer from the windows.

It was a pleasant ride down the Potomac. I had never seen Washington, D.C. from this vantage point before. We floated past the Watergate buildings and the Kennedy Center, then under some bridges past the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. We crossed the river just above the bridge leading from Alexandria to National Harbor, which I crossed back in 2014 when I attended AAS at the Gaylord Resort, which I could see just beyond the bridge. It was a lot colder then, with one of those polar vortexes and bitter wind in January. Now is was a hot and humid July day.

Cohorts mixing

Teacher Innovator Institute cohorts walking to the ferry at Georgetown.

We unloaded at the Old Town docks and had about an hour to explore before heading back. I walked with Jay, my roommate, and Colleen up to the city hall, but it was a Sunday and not much was open. I would like to come back and see the apothecary shop. We did stop for ice cream at a little shop, and I got a double scoop cone with a wonderful chocolate with sprinkles on the bottom and a mango ice cream on top.

Rolls and Ferrari

One thing about being in D.C., you see a better class of cars. Here are a Rolls-Royce and a Ferrari in the same photo.

We boarded the return ferry and pulled away from the dock. The sun was near setting as we headed back up the river, passing the old radar installation at the Naval Research Station. The Capitol building was glowing in the late afternoon sun, and by the time we pulled even with the Jefferson Memorial (which is under repair) the light was turning magenta. I took some great photos of the Washington Monument lining up with the Lincoln Memorial and a set of grand marble stairs leading from the Potomac up to the National Mall, originally designed to give visitors (who would have come by sea vessel back then) a grand first impression of our capital.

Ferryboat docks

Ferryboats at the docks at Georgetown. The Watergate Complex and Kennedy Center lie downriver.

We returned to the Georgetown docks just as the sun was setting. A group of us, mostly 2018 cohort who knew this part of the city better, walked up a few blocks and caught a Metro bus back to Tenleytown. I got to know Amy, an art teacher from Utah who is at Freedom Academy and who had visited Walden School back when Josh Graham was on sabbatical. The university shuttle bus wasn’t running, so we walked from Tenleytown back to the dorms, a little over a mile.

Alexandria City Hall

Old Town Alexandria city hall and fountain.

The 2018 cohort has already been here for a week and have renewed their tight association from last year; as the original experimental group they bonded closely and many of them have gone to conferences and presented together throughout this year. I’m trying to learn everyone’s names as soon as I can and talk to as many as possible. Some of the 2018 group, such as Trevor and Leann, have been very welcoming and helpful for us newbies.

Plane cloud and fountain

Fountain, cloud, and airplane over Old Town Alexandria.

I’ve done a lot of walking today and have pushed my gimpy right leg a bit too much. It is trying to swell up on me. I tried to keep it elevated while talking to people in my cohort in the lounge area on the 5th floor once we got back. I can tell it will be a strenuous two weeks. I was able to solve the other two locks and got the final lockbox open. It was quite the feeling of accomplishment.

Capitol from Potomac

The Capitol Building at sunset from the Potomac River.

Washington and Jefferson

Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial at sunset from the Potomac River. The Jefferson Memorial is being rennovated.

Watergate at sunset

The Watergate Complex at sunset. An infamous event occurred here in 1972 that eventually brought down a president.

Cruise pano small

A panorama of the teachers on board our return ferryboat on the Potomac River.

Locks open

All locks open. The small black lockbox with my ticket to the breakfast in the morning is open at last, with a little help from my friends and cohort.


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On a New Adventure

SLC airplane arrives

Our flight arrives at the Salt Lake International Airport. I flew to Washington, D.C. for the Teacher Innovator Institute at the National Air and Space Museum.

I have been extremely fortunate as a STEAM teacher to experience a number of fun adventures despite being a rather ordinary person. This hasn’t been because of any remarkable talent or skill unless you count dogged persistence as a talent. I just keep on applying to different programs, hoping some of them will come through. Overall, my success rate has been about 25%, which means I fail ¾ of the time. You have to learn to shrug off the failures and be grateful for the occasional successes.

This year I have applied for nine programs or opportunities and was successful on four of them, but had to turn two of them down (one to present at a chemistry teachers conference, another to present at a STEM Forum) because they conflicted with the other two and I would have needed to pay my own way. The ones I accepted were admittance to a doctoral program at the University of Northern Colorado, which I will write about in two weeks, and the second a two-week Teacher Innovator Institute at the National Air and Space Museum. I began that adventure today.

While waiting for my flight I ran into Wendi Lawrence, who is now our regional representative for the National Science Teaching Association. She was on my same flight, going to the National Congress on Science Education, which I attended in Omaha four years ago (and will report on eventually). I have known and worked with Wendi several times over the last several years and it was good to see her again.

We took the direct Delta Flight 832 from Salt Lake City to Washington National Airport which takes off about 9:48 am and arrives at 4:00 pm. There were no delays or problems and the flight was uneventful on a nice, new airplane. I had the left aisle seat so that I could stretch out my gimpy right leg and wore compression socks so that I could handle the long flight.

Airplane and Capitol Bldg

An airplane taxis on the runway at Reagan National Airport with the Potomac River and the Capital Building in the background.

The Institute began last year with an inaugural group of 30 teachers who have returned to D.C. this last week. Now the 2019 cohort are arriving and we will be going behind the scenes at the National Air and Space Museum, both at the National Mall museum and the Udvar-Hazy extension in Chantilly, VA, which I have never visited before. We will learn about the curating process, visit other museums, take a Potomac River cruise, and develop our own space science lesson plans and projects. Best of all, we will be here during the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. For this reason, my project is to develop better lesson plans to teach about the Apollo program and the Moon. What I have now are a hodge podge of different materials that need to be collated, condensed, improved, and have standards and objectives added. We will participate and even help out with the museum’s activities during the celebrations.

DCA tower

Air Traffic Control tower at Reagan National Airport.

I have been to Washington, D.C. many times before and even lived here after my sophomore year of college and worked as a Congressional Intern for Senator Hatch of Utah. We lived in apartments in Alexandria and commuting in every day as my roommate had his car and was a staff member for an Idaho senator. On Saturdays I would take the Metro in to town and visit a museum or two, so I got to know the system well. That was in 1982 and more lines have been added, but not much has changed.

So instead of waiting for other teachers to arrive and taking an Uber or a shuttle van, I rolled my luggage up to the Metro station and rode the yellow line to the Gallery Place – Chinatown Station, then transferred to the Red Line heading toward Shady Grove. We had been mailed Metro cards with $108 pre-loaded, so why pay for another ride? My only trouble was that the upper escalator at the Tenleytown-AU station was under repair, so I had to lug my luggage up the escalator by hand, stopping to let people get by. This was challenging in the hot, humid D.C. summer weather. Outside the station was a bus stop with a shuttle bus taking us to American University, where we will be staying in the dorms at Federal Hall.

DC Metro interior

I took the Yellow Line Metro line from the airport to Gallery Place, then switched to the Red Line and got off at the Tenleytown-AU station.

It took a bit to find the hall after finally asking for directions. I am in room 501, sharing with a teacher named Jay from Omaha, Nebraska. He hadn’t arrived yet, so I unpacked, turned down the thermostat as far as it would go, plugged in the minifridge, and went outside. Some other teachers were congregating in the hall, so we introduced ourselves all around and decided to go as a group to the nearest Target to buy food and supplies.

We walked across campus to the far shuttle bus stop and took it back to the Tenleytown Station, then rode the Red Line to Cleveland Park and walked across the street to the Target, which was in the basement of a strip mall. I bought enough food to last the weekend. Then we took the Metro back to Tenleytown and stopped at the Whole Foods store. The entrance was hard to find, as it was actually in a parking garage (D.C. is like that – older buildings adapted for new uses but with unexpected entrances). I got some natural peanut butter, raspberry jam, and a 12-grain bread for sandwiches. We were all pretty tired of the heat and humidity by the time we got back to the dorms.

TII teachers in Tenleytown Station

Some of the teachers in the 2019 cohort for the Teacher Innovator Institute. They are, left to right, Paula, Monica, Monic, Hunter, Michelle, and Ruth.

After putting my food away and eating some of it for supper, I ventured out and met some of the 2018 cohort. They had gotten to know each other well the preceding year and the week before and were decompressing by watching Stranger Things on a Roku that someone had brought while others were playing Magic. I can see that we newbies will need to do some deliberate team building activities over the next few days to bond with this very cohesive group.

By the time I got back Jay arrived and we talked about our respective teaching experiences until midnight. I have brought along some questionnaires so that I can collect the experiences of these teachers as a kind of pre-dissertation research project. I want to know what kinds of experiences they have had with Project-Based Learning, using authentic data and student-centered research, global citizenship, STEAM, and other subjects that will help direct me toward the most fruitful topics during my doctoral program. I want to hit the ground running.

Cleveland Park Target

Sign in the Target at Cleveland Park.

I called my family to say goodnight and slept surprisingly well considering the room was too hot (I brought a small fan, which helped) and the bed was small.

So off I go on another adventure. I will try to write a daily post to describe our activities in a hope that other teachers out there can benefit from our experiences and perhaps even apply for next year.

Dorm room-American Univ

Our dorm room at American University. We are staying in Federal Hall. Shannon Baldioli, who heads the Institute for the National Air and Space Museum, left us gifts – water bottles, shirts, name tags, stickers, books on the exhibits, and a backpack. Let the bling begin!

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A Constellation in a Box

Orion stars align

The stars in Orion are represented by beads hung in the correct scale of their distances. They form the well-known asterism when viewed from the center of the eyepiece ring, which represents Earth’s position.

Several weeks ago I wrote up a lesson plan as part of a contest sponsored by ORISE, the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. Winners of the contest would receive an all-expenses paid trip to the National Science Teachers Association annual conference in St. Louis. I’m afraid I didn’t win, but it was a great excuse to finally write up my lesson for building a constellation in a box. I’ve been meaning to blog about this lesson for some time.

I’ve written a blog post (and a magazine article for The Science Teacher in Summer 2014) on how to create a 3D model of the nearby stars. When I taught astronomy to 6th grade students at Walden School of Liberal Arts and 8th grade students at American Academy of Innovation, I knew that the nearstar model would be too complicated for middle school students, as it requires using trigonometry functions to calculate correct star positions in the model. So I designed a simpler version that still provides all the learning benefits but is more appropriate for middle grades. Its purpose is to build a 3D model of a constellation in a box with accurate scale in distance but without requiring measurements of right ascension and declination.

Orion model 2

The Orion model as seen from a position many light years away from Earth (the center of the canning jar ring). The constellation appears distorted.

I have student teams select a constellation, steering them away from the less exciting ones such as Cancer or Ares or Triangulum. The teams use Stellarium software and the Internet to research the constellation including the story behind it (such as that defeating Scorpio was one of the Seven Labors of Hercules). Then they identify the 7-8 major stars of the constellation and research the meaning of their names, alternate names using Bayer, Flamsteed, and HIP catalogs, their coordinates (right ascension, declination, and distance in light years), and their spectral classes.

Capricorn and Canis Major

Constellation diagrams before taping in their boxes. The students trace these out using Stellarium and a projector and add the star colors, names, coordinates, and spectral types with asterism lines.

I project their constellations onto my white board and the students trace them onto a large sheet of paper that will just fit into the bottom of a box such as a copy paper box or a banker’s box. They circle the stars when they trace, then use markers to color the stars appropriately for spectral types, label each star with name, class, and distance, and draw asterism lines between them. They draw a grid of lines horizontally and vertically every three centimeters, then glue or tape their diagram into the bottom of the box facing up. They lay their box on its side with the diagram turned the right direction. In the open top of the box (now the front), they use thick black thread or string (monofilament works best) to hang a canning jar ring in the center of the opening as an eyepiece. It needs to be secured on both sides as well so that it stays rigid.

Tracing constellation

6th grade students tracing their constellation on paper using Stellarium to project it on to a white board.

Now comes the calculation part. The students measure the depth of the box from the ring to the bottom where the constellation diagram is located. Let’s say it is 23 cm (which is fairly typical). They then decide which star in their list of 7-8 is the furthest star they will hang. If that star is 500 light years away, it will hang against the backdrop constellation drawing. For the others, divide the furthest star’s distance by the depth of the box, or 500 light years divided by 23 cm, which gives you 21.7 light years/cm as the scale or proportion. Now take the distance of each of the remaining stars and divide it by the scale number to find the centimeters distance to hang that star. For example, if a star is 100 light years away, then using the scale it would be 100 LY/ 21.7 LY/cm which gives me 4.6 cm distance to hang the star from eyepiece.

Measuring to hang star

Students measuring the scale distance for where to hang the star bead from Earth’s position (the eyepiece ring) to the horizontal position of the star in the diagram of Scorpio.

To hang a star, use the diagram at the back of the box to sight into the star. Make a mark on the top of the box directly above that star’s position, then draw a line on the top of the box between where the eyepiece hangs and that point. Measure the scale distance (4.6 cm) along that line and poke a hole in the top (formerly side) of the box with the sharp point of a drawing compass.

To make the stars, use beads of the right colors and sizes for each spectral type and hang them on the same black thread or string. Poke the other end of the string up through the hole in the box and pull up the star bead until it lines up with the star on the diagram as seen while looking through the center of the eyepiece. Then tape it down securely and cut off any extra string. By using a 2D diagram of the constellation, students will not have to worry about measuring the right ascension and declination. Once completed, a typed up version of their star table should be taped across the top of the box to hide the star strings and tape.

Gemini box

The constellation Gemini partially completed. The stars must be lined up with their spots on the back diagram when viewed from Earth’s position (the center of the ring).

Once all the stars are hung, they should form the constellation and line up with the diagram as you look through the center of the eyepiece, such as is shown here with my model of Orion.

Constellation in box diagram-s

Diagram of the constellation in a box and instructions for hanging the star beads.

Once the models are complete, I have my students use a piece of graph paper to draw out the constellation with its grid. One student looks through the center of the eyepiece with her or his eye against the ring to draw this, then moves his or her eye 5 centimeters to the right. The constellations become distorted as the closer stars seem to move more than the further stars through what we call parallax. The students then draw the constellation as it appears moving the observer’s eyes 10 cm to the left of the eyepiece center then 5 cm up from the center. All four drawings can be placed on the same graph paper using different colors of pencils/pens for each eye position and labeling the main stars. I usually have the students answer some reflection questions or lead a discussion on how constellations are temporary since stars have proper motion through space, and how their appearance would change if we could travel several light years through space. I then have many choices for how to continue or extend this lesson.

Orion distorted

Moving the viewer’s position 5 cm to the left produces distortion in the constellation as the closer stars appear to move further to the right. Only Alnilam, the center star in Orion’s belt, appears to not move very much because it is in the far distance next to the back of the box.

I’ve done this activity several times now in three different schools and have modified and improved it. The first time I tried, I had students build their own boxes or frames, which wound up taking far too much time, effort, and materials. Instead, I simply plan ahead and when the school orders more copy paper, I collect the boxes it came in. These are just the right size for this activity.

The NGSS standards that this activity meets include the Crosscutting Concepts of Scale, Proportion, and Distance and Using Models in Science. It also teaches the Earth Science and Astronomy Disciplinary Core Ideas of stars, spectral types, coordinates in space, and constellations. This activity is also good for global awareness as you can have students use non-Greco-Roman constellations such as The Wain or The Wagon instead of Ursa Major, etc., and have them look up alternative mythologies and star names.

Gemini distrotions drawn

A completed diagram of Gemini with the original constellation as seen form the center of the eyepiece (Earth’s position) and from other locations as shown by different colored markers. Castor and Pollux move much more than Wasat because they are closer to Earth and there is more parallax as a result of the change of the observer’s position.

You can extend this activity to have the students chart their stars in the H-R Diagram Lesson I will post at a later date, and from there to a lesson on stellar evolution. You could discuss why there are no red or brown dwarfs in the models. This is because even the brightest and nearest red dwarfs are too small to see without telescopes, so they are not included in planetarium software such as Stellarium. This can lead into an activity on measuring the distances to stars, such as my Parallax lesson plan (https://spacedoutclassroom.com/2012/12/07/the-parallax-method/) or the Distance Modulus Method (https://spacedoutclassroom.com/?s=distance+modulus).

Thumbs up

Doing great! Students charting out the change in the stars’ apparent positions as the observer moves.

At the end, you will have some nice models to display in your classroom for Parent – Teacher nights or STEAM Showcases. As always, if you use this lesson, feel free to modify it any way you want and let me know how it goes.

Here is a PDF version of the final lesson plan:

Constellation in a Box-David Black

Scorpio and Gemini

Completed boxes for Scorpio and Gemini, with distortion diagrams included.

Row of constellation boxes-AAI

A row of completed constellation boxes at American Academy of Innovation.

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