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.

About davidvblack

I teach courses in multimedia, 3D animation, Earth science, physics, biology, 8th grade science, chemistry, astronomy, engineering design, STEAM, and computer science in Utah. I've won numerous awards as an educator and am a frequent presenter at state and national educator conferences. I am part of the Teachers for Global Classrooms program through the U.S. Department of State and traveled to Indonesia in the summer of 2017 as an education ambassador. I learned of the Indonesian education system and taught classes in astronomy and chemistry at a high school near Banjarmasin in southern Borneo. I am passionate about STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics); science history; photography; graphic design; 3D animation; and video production. This Spaced-Out Classroom blog is for sharing lessons and activities my students have done in astronomy. The Elements Unearthed project (http://elementsunearthed.com) will combine my interests to document the discovery, history, sources, uses, mining, refining, and hazards of the chemical elements.
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