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.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Farewell to Opportunity

MER model-Isaac Wilson

A 3D model of the Mars Exploration Rovers created by my student, Isaac Wilson. This model was featured on the cover of The Deseret News in 2004.

NASA announced last week that the Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover has been declared dead after over 14 years of operation. When a global dust storm enshrouded Mars last year, the rover probably became so covered with dust that its solar panels couldn’t produce enough energy to keep the rover going. Once the dust cleared, the rover operators at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory sent signals to try to wake it up, but after a final attempt last week yielded no results, they officially pulled the plug on the mission.

MER zoom 4

A student-created 3D model of the Mars Exploration Rovers on the surface of Mars created using MOLA altitude data.

I’ve been expecting this. Given that all attempts to re-establish communications last fall failed, it was only a matter of time. The same thing happened to Spirit in 2010 after it got stuck in a sand pit with its solar panels facing away from the sun during a Martian winter. Once the winter ended, Spirit did not wake up. But even though this announcement was expected, it still makes me feel a bit sad that my old friend is gone. I also feel proud that it exceeded all expectations by lasting 13.5 years longer than designed and traveling over 25 miles across the surface of Mars.

Gale to Gusev render

A section of Mars with Gale crater in the upper left corner (where Curiosity landed) and Gusev crater in the far right (where Spirit landed). This image was created using Mars MOLA 3D altitude data.

I call it my old friend because that is how it feels to me. I was at JPL during the summer of 2002 when both rovers were being built, and I saw the assembly team putting the parts together in the High Bay clean room in Building 179. I was there as an Educator Facilitator for the NASA Educator Workshops for Mathematics And Science Teachers (NEWMAST) program. My job was to work as a liaison for 25 teachers that had been selected from across the country to attend a two-week all-expenses-paid workshop at JPL. I communicated with them before the workshop to help arrange for their flights. I worked out details with the hotel, rented mini-vans for our daily trips to JPL and elsewhere, and arranged meals, workshop sessions, tours, and guest speakers. I even had the chance to lead a few of the sessions.


David Seidel, Manager, Elementary and Secondary Education at JPL, explains the operation of the FIDO rover mockup in the Mars Yard at JPL in 2002 along with participants in the 2002 NEWMAST educator workshop.

I had the privilege of working with Dave Seidel, Art Hammon, and other Education and Public Outreach specialists at JPL. They were with the Mars Exploration team and other missions such as Cassini, Deep Impact, and Stardust. To put the final touches on our plans, I traveled to JPL a week early and then spent several days after the workshop writing final reports and shipping materials back to my home in Utah. I returned later that summer for four days as a NASA/JPL Solar System Educator and received further training. Altogether, I was at JPL for over a month that summer and saw Opportunity and Spirit several times as they were being built.

The Birth of a New Space Probe

Jim Green at Town Hall

Dr. Jim Green, Chief NASA Scientist, outlines the Fiscal Year 2018 budget during the NASA Town Hall meeting at the 38th Annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in March 2017. Notice the budget items approving the 2020 Mars Rover and the Europa Clipper probe.

Space probes begin as a gleam in the eye of NASA’s Planetary Science Directorate with an Announcement of Opportunity at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference during the NASA Town Hall Meeting. NASA looks ahead to alignments of the planets and determines if a mission for a particular launch window is part of the their strategic plan, as outlined in the Decadal Survey. In the Town Hall Meeting, the Chief Scientist (currently Dr. Jim Green, whom my students and I met two years ago in Houston) announces the upcoming opportunities and goals – if the probe will be a flyby, an orbiter, a lander, a rover, or a sample return. Different research teams from various universities are in the audience, which is invited to put together proposals for instruments to fly on the bus, or basic vehicle structure, including their cost, dimensions, and energy requirements. NASA looks over the proposals and selects several that have the most scientific merit for further feasibility funding. Those selected build and test a prototype of their instrument and provide detailed reports back to NASA, which then selects the final instruments to fly.


Dr. Wayne Zimmerman explains his cryobot to participants in the NASA Explorer Schools 2004 workshop at JPL. The prototype is on the table, and was tested by melting down through 50 feet of a glacier on an island off the coast of Norway. It is designed to melt through and sample the ice of Europa.

Some don’t make the final cut. I saw a presentation by Wayne Zimmerman of JPL who has created a type of ice drilling torpedo that can heat through planetary ice, collecting and analyzing samples as it goes. It would be ideal for a mission to Europa where a lander would place it onto the thinnest ice. It would drill down until it reached open water (or at least slush) beneath and convert itself into a submersible to explore that ocean. His team received feasibility funding and tested their device on a glacier on an island off the coast of Norway with polar bears migrating through their camp. They went down 50 feet and it worked perfectly. It was sitting on his desk during our tour of JPL, not because it isn’t worthy to go on a mission but because no mission yet has landed on planetary ice. Maybe some day, soon.

Admin Bldg 2

The Administration Building at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California where the Opportunity and Spirit rovers were designed, constructed, and tested.

Once the final instruments are selected, the probe must be designed, built, tested, and launched. This is the part done at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a focus of the workshops I helped to lead for NASA.

The Project Development Tour


Teachers for the 2002 NEWMAST workshop at JPL going through the Badging Office at the beginning of their tour of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

On our first full day at JPL, we arranged for the participants to do what Dave Seidel calls the Project Development Tour. For the teachers to learn the phases in designing, building, testing, launching, and monitoring a space probe mission such as the Mars Exploration Rovers, he designed a tour through the JPL labs that paralleled the process a probe goes through. We began in the Badging Office where all visitors have to register, receive a badge, and have an escort take them to their destination.


Participants of the 2002 NASA Educator Workshops for Mathematics and Science Teachers (NEWMAST) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I am in the green shirt at the back right, and Art Hammon is in the light cyan shirt and white shorts in the front left.

We took photos out on the quad of our group, then visited the Von Karman Museum to see models and engineering test beds of various rovers, including the test bed for the Galileo probe that was still orbiting Jupiter at that time. We were treated to a presentation and welcome in the Von Karman Auditorium next door, which still contains the mockup of the Voyager space probe that I first saw in 1978 as a high school senior, except that then it was in the middle of the room and is now over on the left side.


Participants of the 2004 NASA Explorer Schools workshop inspecting the Voyager engineering model in the Von Karman Auditorium. I first saw this model sitting in the middle of the room during my first visit to JPL in 1978 as a high school senior.

We then walked to the Project Design Center and learned how the different subsystems of a probe are designed cooperatively. For example, there has to be a give and take as new requirements/specifications are decided on. Building a larger solar panel, for example, requires more weight and more propellant and a larger tank, so other parts have to be lightened or pared down. It all has to fold up to fit inside the shroud on top of the launch vehicle, then be able to unfold once it reaches and then leaves Earth orbit. It has to be able to survive Mars orbital insertion using aerobraking or drogue chutes then make a soft landing on the surface.


Teachers in the 2002 NEWMAST workshop at the Project Design Center at JPL.

Our next stop was the Micro Devices Lab, where we got to see samples of some of the types of instruments that would be going on Spirit and Opportunity. They had prototype space probes that were the size of shoeboxes with micro thrusters to steer them. They had a micro-etched compact disc with the names of thousands of people (mine and my children’s included) etched on their surfaces and transported to Mars on the rovers (encased in a cover near the calibration target and sundial). They had a scanning tunneling electron microscope (Ooh! Aah!) and a working methanol-air fuel cell system.


Teachers in the 2002 NEWMAST workshop in the Micro Devices Lab.

This last was important to me because I built my own methanol-air fuel cells as a senior in high school and managed to coax about 70 microamps out of them. This wasn’t enough to electrocute a flea, but my project did win first place in the Southern Utah Science Fair that year and got me a free trip to the International Science and Engineering Fair in Anaheim, CA. One of the days of that fair, we weren’t allowed to be at our booths so the judges could read our data books and our backdrops without us. The fair organizers set up tours, and I chose to visit JPL. It was my first visit, and now here I was helping to lead teachers through the lab and looking at a working fuel cell system. It was fitting.


A prototype of a shoebox sized mini probe or satellite, with tiny thrusters on the corners, in the Micro Devices Lab at JPL. 16 years later, we are now launching small Cube Sats from the International Space Station.

Once a space probe is designed, prototypes of subsystems are built and extensively tested, such as the airbag system first used on the Pathfinder mission that had to be scaled up for the MERs (since they were bigger and heavier). All of these parts have to be machined and fabricated. We next took the teachers to the Fabrication Shop, which is amazing. For the MERs, the mission was not farmed out to a third party such as Ball Aerospace or Lockheed Martin. All the parts were built in-house in the Fab Shop, and the shop is a machinist’s heaven, with five 5-axis Fodel milling machines and other unique equipment to build the parts of a machine no one has ever built before to do a job never before attempted.


The Fabrication Shop at JPL. The machines in the foreground are Fodel computer controlled milling machines with five axes of rotation.


Teachers in the 2004 NES workshop outside the In Situ Instruments Lab, or ISIL, at JPL.

For testing the design, we visited the In-Situ Instruments Lab (ISIL), where the prototype rovers are tested in a large indoor sandbox. Their electronics are thoroughly investigated and ran through their paces to make sure every command is well understood and practiced. We visited the Mars Yard, where a mock up rover bed called FIDO was tested to see how it could handle different types and sizes of rocks. The Mars Exploration Rovers were built with six-wheel drive and a rocker bogey suspension that could handle fairly steep slopes and different types of Martian regolith. Whenever the rovers encountered a challenging terrain, it was simulated in the Mars Yard and tested with the mock up to be certain the rover could handle the challenge, such as driving down into Endurance Crater.


Entrance to the Spacecraft Assembly Facility building at JPL.

Our next stop was the Vehicle Assembly Building (179) where we walked up to the viewing gallery and watched as the technicians in grounded bunny suits carefully assembled the parts of both rovers. In the front below our gallery window were the backshell and solar panels used for the trip from Earth to Mars. In the back technicians were adding parts to the rovers themselves, with each connection and hookup tested and retested. The room is a Class 5 clean room so that no particles of dust or contaminant can get into the rovers to ruin a circuit. This is cleaner than a hospital operating room, and the entire bay is kept in positive pressure to prevent particles from entering the room. It was thrilling to look down into the High Bay and see the pieces that would travel to Mars the next year and know I was a witness to history.


Technicians assembling one of the Mars Exploration Rovers in the High Bay assembly room. It is a Class 5 clean room with positive pressure to prevent contamination. Photo by Tony Baldasaro.

For the final stop of our full day tour, we hoofed it to the top of JPL, up what is called Cardiac Hill for good reason. At the top of the hill is the Environmental Test Lab, or what everyone commonly calls Shake and Bake, because that’s what they do. Once the space probes are assembled and everything works and fits, they are taken apart and shipped to Shake and Bake for the real testing. They place the parts and subsystems inside an acoustic chamber with large horns that hit the parts with over 150 decibels of sound. Decibels are on a logarithmic scale, so what would be loud to us at 50 decibels would lead to deafness at 100 decibels and irreparable brain damage at 150 db. Yet launching a space probe is so noisy and so shaky that the parts have to be able to withstand these types of vibrations. They place the parts on shaker tables to see if they will fail. They place them in large radiation ovens and pump out all the air and blast them with ultraviolet rays to simulate the conditions of traveling through space. Then they put the parts back together and place the whole rover inside a giant 25-foot vacuum chamber with large arc lamps to simulate the sun.


One of the Mars Exploration Rovers being assembled at JPL. Notice that it is in cruise configuration with the wheels retracted. Once it lands on Mars, the wheels unfolded and the MER rolled off of its landing platform.

Only about 2 in 5 parts manage to survive, so the Fab Shop always makes extra – they really built about five probes for each one sent, and keep at least one back as a test bed. When I first visited JPL in 1978 as a high school senior, they had recently sent the Viking missions to Mars and had one of the lander test beds on display in the Von Karman museum, as well as the test bed for Voyager, which is still there but now off to the side instead of in the middle of the auditorium.


View of the High Bay at JPL as the Mars Exploration Rovers are being assembled. In the foreground left is a completed backshell for the probe without the solar panels on the top. The rover sits inside during its cruise to Mars, then lands inside airbags before unfolding and rolling onto the surface.

Once everything checks out, the final probe is again taken apart and shipped to Cape Canaveral, where it is reassembled inside the shroud at the top of the launch vehicle. I had the privilege of seeing the launch of the Mars 2001 Odyssey orbiter. It launched in 2001 on a Delta II Heavy rocket with five boosters and what a sight that was! And it’s still orbiting Mars.


Participants in the 2002 NEWMAST workshop inside the 25-foot vacuum chamber in the Environmental Test Lab at JPL. This chamber is used to test the re-assembled space probes by pumping out all the air and hitting the probes with high radiation from arc lamps to simulate the conditions of space.


An acoustic horn, capable of over 150 decibels, to simulate the vibrational energy during launch. If you were to be in the chamber when this goes off, the noise would melt your brian. And I’m not exaggerating . . .


Not exactly your standard Easy Bake Oven. This chamber simulates the conditions of space, which the probe must survive for 6-8 months on its way to Mars. The air is pumped out to a high vacuum and the chamber is blasted with high radiation.

Communicating with Space Probes

On other days of the workshop we showed the teachers how NASA and JPL communicate with the space probes. This is done by taking the data from the probe (instrument readings, images from cameras, etc.), which is in the form of binary code, and translating it into radio signals using phase modulation. Essentially, a carrier radio signal is modulated by a second signal of the same frequency that is either in phase (adding up or a 1) or out of phase (subtracting out, or a 0). The radio signal travels back to Earth where it is picked up by the large 34 and 70 meter radio dishes of the Deep Space Network.

DSN 70 dish

The 70 meter radio antenna at the Deep Space Network at Goldstone, California. This photo is from a student tour in March 2016.

DSN has three locations around the world so that a probe’s signals can be continuously monitored. These are at Goldstone at Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert near Barstow, California; near Canberra, Australia; and near Madrid, Spain. On the Saturday of our two-week NEWMAST workshop, we arranged to drive out to Goldstone and take a tour of the Deep Space Network antennas. It was 114° and we tried to fry an egg on the asphalt, but it wasn’t quite hot enough. I will write a later post of a tour that I arranged in 2016 of my students to visit the Goldstone DSN. The photo you see here is of the 70-meter dish taken during our tour there in March 2016.

Walden students at SFOF-2016

Students from Walden School of Liberal Arts visiting the Space Flight Operations Facility at JPL in March 2016. I am at far right. Photo by Shannon McConnell.

Once the signals come in to DSN, they are sent directly to JPL from Goldstone via landline where they arrive at the Space Flight Operations Facility (SFOF). We took the teachers to the SFOF as a continuation of the Project Development Tour. I have since taken my own students on a tour of JPL and we got to sit in the visitor gallery overlooking the main operations floor, which looks like mission control and has large monitors showing the data as it comes in to SFOF.

SFOF control room-2016

Space Flight Operations Facility control room at JPL in 2016. Notice the upgraded monitors and the data streams coming in from the Deep Space Network.

For the third year of the NEWMAST (later NASA Explorer Schools, or NES) program, we took the teachers to the SFOF gallery one evening for a special treat. This was a second year workshop for NES all about robotics and Mars exploration. When visitors use the gallery, EPO personnel can take over the middle screen of the mission control room to make presentations. Dave, Art, and I decided to give the teachers a viewing of the old movie Angry Red Planet on the central screen. The controllers sitting in the SFOF mission control room below had some very puzzled expressions on their faces as they saw the infamous bat rat spider crab appear on their monitor. Don’t ask me what a bat rat spider crab is. Look it up . . . It was one of the most hilarious experiences of my life, doubly enhanced by the setting. Mars is red . . . and it’s angry!

SFOF Gallery 2002

Teachers from the 2002 NEWMAST workshop in the gallery overlooking the Space Flight Operations Facility control room.

Once the data comes in to JPL, it may need some processing and fixing. There are many ways that data can be corrupted or interfered with on its long journey between the planets, not the least of which is radiation and charged particles streaming out from our sun. The damaged data must be cleaned up then re-translated back into a usable format, such as the pretty pictures of Mars or Saturn that we see in the newspapers and on the Internet. This is done in the Multi-Mission Image Processing Lab, or MMIPL. On one of the days of our workshop, we took the teachers to the MMIPL and had a great presentation on how the navigation cameras on a Mars probe are combined to make a red-blue 3D anaglyph. I questioned Chris Carrara, one of the engineers there, on how to make this work and he gave me instructions which I have used successfully in my own classes.


Teachers in the 2002 NEWMAST workshop at the Multi Mission Image Processing lab, learning how 3D images work.

Student Opportunities

Having seen Spirit and Opportunity as they were being built and tested, I feel something of an affinity for them. I went over all the diagrams and specifications during our workshops. Yet what makes them my old friends was a project my students participated in a year and a half later. I applied for them to join the inaugural Mars Exploration Student Data Team project, and we were selected as the only non-science team out of 53 groups that year.


A rendered 3D model of Valles Marineris on Mars, created using Mars MOLA data from the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft.

My students were media design and 3D modeling students, and we learned how to use the J-Mars software to predict when the Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft would be passing over the MER’s positions. As Spirit and Opportunity approached Mars, we followed their progress carefully. A global dust storm similar to the one this last year kicked up just before the landers arrived, and the scientists were concerned that the dust might interfere with the landings. Since it traps heat, the dust would cause the Martian atmosphere to warm up and expand, changing the timing of when the explosive bolts would need to fire to release the drogue chutes, drop off the backshell and heat shield, and inflate the airbags.

Dust storm frames 2

Frames from our animation of the dust storm on Mars during December 2003. As the Mars Exploration Rovers approached their landings, the dust storm began over the Tharsis Plateau and quickly spread across the martian equator until it enveloped the entire planet. This caused mission controllers to recalculate the timing of when the parachutes and airbags deployed. This image uses dust opacity data from Mars Global Surveyor converted to a 3D model, then animated by my media design students as part of the Mars Exploration Student Data Team program.

When the MERs landed, I had my students watch them live. Spirit landed first, in Gusev Crater, but it was Opportunity that scored a literal hole in one. It landed in a flat area in Terra Meridiani north of Miyamoto Crater where the Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey had identified iron hematite. Since the rovers were tasked to “follow the water,” this was an excellent choice because specular hematite can only form in liquid water. Opportunity rolled into a small crater and as soon as they turned on the cameras, the scientists could see sedimentary layers in the crater walls. As Opportunity rolled up for a close-up inspection, it found small rounded iron hematite concretions that were called “blueberries” because that’s what they looked like in color enhanced photos from the MAHLI hand-lens camera on the end of the robotic arm.


The area of Kasei Valles on Mars, created using Mars MOLA 3D altitude data.

As we worked with the science teams, my students also learned how to use 3D altitude data of Mars from the Mars Global Surveyor’s MOLA instrument. It was something of a quest of mine to work out how to get the data into my favorite 3D program, and with the help of such people as Kees Veenenbos I finally figured it out. My students were able to access the UNIX server at JPL that housed all the MER data and download the Tau dust opacity data. We created a 3D animation of the dust storm that hit Mars in December 2003. They used engineering diagrams to build 3D models of Spirit and Opportunity as well as other Mars landers, rovers, and orbiters. They designed and programmed an interactive CD-ROM on the history of Mars exploration. Four of my students (including my son Jordan) traveled to Arizona State University with me to present their project at a student symposium for the MESDT program. We also got to select and acquire an image of Mars from the Mars Odyssey probe through the Mars Student Imaging Program.

MESDT symp-Isaac present-f

Isaac and Renn, two of my media design students, present their Mars interface and project to students for the Mars Exploration Student Data Team program in 2004 at a symposium at Arizona State University.

Because of their participation in the program, my students were interviewed by local news agencies including two TV stations, two newspapers, and the Associated Press out of Los Angeles (over the telephone). Their 3D models of space probes and the surface of Mars were featured in newspapers. Pretty good for high school students!

Mars article-MATC-f

Newspaper article in the Deseret News, with interviews of my students and images they created including 3D models of the Sojourner Rover, the Mars Odyssey orbiter, and a 3D image of Mars using MOLA data. They were interviewed by two TV stations, two newspapers, and the Associated Press out of Los Angeles.

Opportunities Roll On

Later that spring I traveled to the NASA Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston to present what my students were doing and how they were using authentic Mars data at a pre-conference workshop. I attended the NASA Town Hall meeting where I saw Dr. Steven Squyres, the Principle Investigator for some of the MER instruments. Later in 2004, as I helped lead other workshops at JPL, we were briefed by John Callas, Project Manager for Opportunity. As we were waiting for Dr. Callas to come in, we could see Dr. Squyres and the other MER planners working out where to send the rovers next. Although we couldn’t hear their discussions (there was a glass partition between us), we could see them display photos from Opportunity of the sand dunes at the bottom of Endurance Crater. Dr. Callas told us later that they were deciding whether or not to send the rover to the sand dunes or if it was time to exit the crater and move on.

JPL all

A view of all of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I’ve had the privilege of visiting JPL on many occasions and I consider it to be the most amazing place on the planet.

Since then, Opportunity has explored progressively larger craters, starting with the small crater they landed in then Endurance, Victoria, and Endeavor Craters. It got stuck for a while in a sand dune but with some coaxing the drivers got it out and rolling again. It has gradually gotten more and more covered with fine Mars dust, although dust devils have cleaned it off from time to time. Its robotic arm went arthritic and it was limping on one of its wheels, but it kept on going even though much more attention was grabbed by first the Phoenix lander and then the Curiosity Rover. Through all of this, over 15 years, I’ve tried to keep up to date on what Opportunity is doing.


Sunbathing on Mars. Or at least, the Mars Yard.

Many of the greatest opportunities I’ve had in my life have come about because of the Mars Exploration Rovers. I was at JPL for an educator conference when Curiosity landed on Mars (as I wrote about in previous posts). I won third place in a national lesson plan contest sponsored by Explore Mars, Inc. and received the award from Bill Nye, Director of the Planetary Society. This led to participating in an astrobiology field research study in the Mojave National Preserve with Dr. Chris McKay of NASA Ames Research Center in 2012. I became a MAVEN Educator Ambassador in 2015 with a visit to Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland. I’ve branched out with NASA educator opportunities such as the NITARP program, flying on SOFIA as an Airborne Astronomy Ambassador, fulfilling an NSF Research Experience for Teachers program in astrophysics at BYU, and being named first runner up as the National Air Force Association’s Aerospace Teacher of the Year. Opportunity was aptly named for me, at least. It truly feels like I’ve lost an old friend.


A photo of me taken from the gallery overlooking High Bay 2 in 2002. The Mars Exploration Rovers are being assembled inside the clean room. I can count many opportunities in my own life because of Opportunity and Spirit. I’m sad they are now part of history after 14 years of operation on Mars.

Yet the exploration of Mars continues. Curiosity is finally beginning to climb Mt. Sharp in Gale Crater, and the as yet unnamed 2020 Mars Rover is on schedule for launch next year. InSight landed last fall and will provide us with a peak inside Mars for the first time. I hope to see humans land on Mars before I die and the chances are looking better every year.

But for now, goodbye Opportunity.


The participants in the 2004 NASA Explorer Schools robotics workshop at JPL. This week long workshop focused on Mars exploration and robotics, and we spent much of the time building LEGO Mars rovers and paper mache Mars terrains to learn how to remotely guide a rover. We also toured JPL and the robotics labs there. I am at far left next to Art Hammon (dark blue shirt and white shorts). Dave Seidel is at the far right on the third row back. Ota Lutz, who also helped to plan and lead the workshop, is in the row in front and to the left of Dave in a navy blue shirt.


A 3D model of the area of Terra Meridiani around Miyamoto Crater (the crater of the sickle moon in upper left). The Opportunity rover landed just north of Miyamoto. This area was identified from orbit as having large deposits of specular hematite, which forms in running water. There are numerous old river channels crossing Terra Meridiani, as you can see in this model.

Gale crater 3D

A 3D model of Gale Crater on Mars, where the Curiosity rover landed in 2012. I was at JPL for the week leading up to the landing, and it was a fun time to be part of it all.

Mars Interface-MER

Interface for the Mars Exploration project my students created in 2004. They presented this at the MESDT symposium at Arizona State University.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Evaluating the Mars Project at AAI

Mars project winners on Titan

Winning teams for our Mars Exploration project at AAI, visiting Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City.

Our student teams made their final summative project presentations on April 28, 2017 to teacher judges during the day and to the public in the evening. I wrote about these presentations in my last post. In this post, I want to give a frank evaluation of how we did as a school from a Project Based Learning perspective.

Mousetronaut leaders presenting

Team leaders for the Mousetronaut Group presenting at our community event on April 28, 2017.

According to the Buck Institute for Education (www.bie.org), the Gold Standard for project-based learning design has seven attributes surrounding a core goal of developing key content knowledge, conceptual understanding, and success skills (or 21st Century Skills). These characteristics are:

  1. A Challenging Problem or Question
  2. Opportunity for Sustained Inquiry
  3. Authenticity
  4. Student Voice and Choice
  5. Opportunities for Reflection
  6. Frequent Critique and Revision
  7. A Publicly Presented Product
PBL Gold standard

Diagram from the Buck Institute for Education on the seven characteristics of Gold Standard project-based learning.

Let’s look at each of these through the lens of our Mars Project at American Academy of Innovation (AAI).

  1. A Challenging Problem or Question: Our theme was the exploration of Mars, which certainly poses a challenge. Knowing that Mars will kill a person in under three minutes three different ways makes sending people there a difficult proposition, not even considering the great distance and logistics. Understanding these difficulties was our first task. That’s why we created the Mars seminar classes first semester, to get our students up to speed on the basics of Mars and its challenges. I cannot say that we were entirely effective in preparing the students with the needed background information, mostly because the teachers themselves weren’t up to speed. Some did better than others – I’ve studied Mars a great deal and know the orbital mechanics of getting there and back and the conditions there, but even I didn’t have enough time to make sure all of my seminar students had the training they would need to be effective on our projects. Other teachers sought out the knowledge they would need, but were more or less motivated as to how far they were willing to prepare.

The exploration of Mars is not nearly as easy as originally envisioned by early space experts. Walking outside without a spacesuit will kill you three ways at once. Just getting there safely will be a major undertaking, let alone the 30 month round trip.

Of course, part of PBL is that content knowledge comes naturally through the process of building projects and is student-centered, not teacher directed. They will learn what they need to know to be successful in their projects, and for the most part this proved true for our students. The Mousetronaut group learned how to build a 3-stage rocket on their own (with help from Mr. Warren, their mentor teacher) and how to measure and calculate the g-forces for acceleration and landing and the altitude of the rocket. Their project was as much engineering as it was science, and they built, tested, and revised their prototype rocket through applying the engineering design cycle.

Storm presenting

One of the team leaders for the Mars Novel project, getting ready to present.

Other teams had to learn some basic knowledge and develop skills to complete their projects, which was the challenging part of this PBL experience. The habitat group had to design, build, revise, and rebuild their habitat. They learned some building skills and how to work with tools and cut wooden beams. The other habitat group didn’t gain these skills because the mentor teacher was reluctant to have them use power tools, so they accomplished very little as a team since they weren’t really given a challenge to solve. The soil experiment group had to learn what Mars soil is like and find a source that simulates it (which was a real challenge – with the help of their teacher, they finally found a source at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands). For building a game, Minecraft Mod, or role-playing simulation, some knowledge of Mars was necessary to make the scenario realistic; students had to do basic research. The 3D animation group had to learn the software and design the rocket, and this was challenging for them. Most of the teams did well at accepting the challenge of understanding Mars.

Shockproof team

Team that tested shockproof materials. It was somewhat related to Mars in that we will need such materials to handle the stresses of landing, but otherwise this project didn’t show a very deep understanding of conditions on Mars. It was a great project nonetheless.

For those students who didn’t dig in to the challenge quite as much, the results were mixed. The Mars history team did find basic exploration information, but some of the facts they presented on their poster were incorrect where only a small bit of double-checking would have corrected their errors. About half of the individual projects did not demonstrate a realistic knowledge of Mars. For example, as good as the wing cross-section project was, the student didn’t find out the basic fact that Mars’ atmosphere is very thin and won’t supply enough lift for the type of wing he designed. The Mars fashion team didn’t consider that Mars’ gravity is about 1/3 that of Earth, which makes quite a bit of difference in how clothing hangs and looks. Their project could have been about Earth fashion just as easily.

Our results on this point are mostly positive – the theme proved challenging for most students, enough that they had to dig for the content knowledge and skills they needed to complete their projects.

Inquiry steps diagram

A schematic diagram of the inquiry process

  1. Sustained Inquiry: I would define inquiry as asking questions and determining methods for finding answers. This can be done in any subject area, so inquiry can be done in history as easily as science as long as the sources are primary, such as interviews of actual people involved or developing questionnaires, etc. The soil growth team and the Mousetronaut team certainly did effective inquiry – they asked questions, decided on experimental procedures, gathered and analyzed data, and drew conclusions. The 3D sub-team that studied the aerodynamics of their rocket by 3D printing it and creating their own wind tunnel did a nice job at inquiry even if their data was collected through video analysis.

Ten reasons for using an inquiry-based learning approach.

The other teams were less effective. The history group did not use primary sources but only pulled up the standard Internet pages without finding out anything new about the history of Mars exploration. I would have been a good source for them, as I have met and interviewed many people who are directly involved and they could have analyzed the videos I’ve done, but they didn’t ask. I could have helped them set up direct interviews with Mars personnel, but again, they didn’t ask and were content with simply organizing the same old facts (which they got partially wrong). This is why their project didn’t take all the time they had – they didn’t go deep enough.

The Mars habitat groups did not conduct their planned inquiry beyond the engineering challenge of building their habitat. Because of problems with the team leaders using the habitat as a kind of clubhouse, it had to be shut down and the final experiments were not conducted; no one actually stayed in the habitat. The extent of their inquiry was an analysis of why they failed and what they learned from that, which is certainly useful. The Mars novel and drawings groups learned about writing and drawing, and did some good research on Mars conditions for their projects, so their projects were partially about inquiry but it wasn’t as sustained as some other projects. The Mars sports team did do research into various sports/games that would work on Mars, and that involved some inquiry as well. They tried out the sport to make corrections, which is engineering design.


Another model of the inquiry process

In summary, we probably hit about 50% on this attribute. If I were to do this again, I would build inquiry requirements more deliberately into the project proposal rubrics, so that students would pay more attention to the metacognitive aspects of their projects.

  1. Authenticity: This attribute means that the problem or question worked on is relevant and meaningful to students and their community. This was probably our weakest area; even though the students voted for the Mars theme, many of them had continuing questions about what the relevance of Mars exploration was to humanity. One seminar class focused on whether or not we should actually go to Mars, and after analyzing many of the factors (possibly not all), they came to the conclusion that we would better spend our money doing something else. As a theme, it was further removed (literally) from their everyday experiences and they had a hard time finding a personal interest in Mars. Even though the data they acquired was authentic, the topic was too far away to be meaningful.
Mars group leaders

Some of the student leaders for our Mars project at AAI. Out of 13 projects, 7 were led by female students and four were led by 7-8th grade students.

If I were to do this again, I would solicit more ideas from students at the very start of the process. As a faculty, we came up with a list before the semester started and narrowed it down to four to present to the students for a vote, without much input from the students. This was because it was a new school and the students hadn’t formed social connections yet. In future years, I would recommend that all ideas come from students first through in-class discussions, anonymous suggestion boxes, etc. and that a student group be set up to narrow the ideas down with minimal faculty input. That way, all the final ideas will be student-generated and we will increase the level of buy-in we get. If students ask why we’re working on a particular theme, we can say that it was their idea, not ours.

Video team leads

The leaders of our video team. They coordinated cameras, downloaded videos and photos, and made sure we had every team presentation covered. The photos you see on this blog wouldn’t have happened without them.

  1. Student Voice and Choice: We did well on this attribute, having students write up proposals and accepting all that were complete and on time. We got a nice cross section of completely different approaches to Mars exploration, from testing rockets to drawing colonies to writing novels to playing sports. We did discover one difficulty and that was how to apply one rubric to evaluate the effectiveness of these projects, when they were all so different. Some if it had to come from student self-evaluation of how much they learned from the process.

The biggest challenge was with students who did not choose to apply to be on a team or who did apply but were not selected. We asked them to do individual projects, which most did, but there were some who deliberately tried to get out of doing anything at all and even stayed home from school (or sluffed) on the presentation day. Of course, the project was counted as a class for credit and they received Fs for their lack of effort, but some students are not motivated by grades.

Smach group-4-28 evening

The Smash-Proof Material group presenting during our Evening Mars Event.

This remains the most difficult question for me about Project Based Learning: what do you do about the slackers who don’t care to do anything at all, or are willing to let others do all the work? We had about 20-25 students out of 220 that were in this group, or about 10% who didn’t care. Others were only nominally involved and required pink slips (getting fired from the group) or mentor intervention to keep doing their part. This under motivated group might have been as high as 25% of the students. Considering our school was billed as a Project Based Learning school, it seems odd to me that 10% of the students enrolling didn’t want to do projects and another 25% were only moderately involved. I suppose that enrollment in our school was forced on them by parents and didn’t come from internal motivation.

My suggestions for reducing these “free rider” students would be to do a better job at choosing a relevant, meaningful theme or question that is more authentic for the students and tied to their immediate lives. Those that don’t work or perform up to their potential will need to be judged accurately and the consequences made relevant (stay in detention after school until the project is done and presented, for example). We need to do a better job of recruiting students by being very open and honest about the project expectations. For our second year, many of the unmotivated students did not return, and many of the new students were much more excited about our PBL structure. This hopefully led to better project involvement and quality.


Reflecting on the learning process is an essential part of PBL

  1. Opportunity for Reflection: This implies building in a metacognitive aspect, where students evaluate the effect of the project on themselves and their own learning. This takes some training and needs to be built in from the start. This was our greatest failure. Once we had the final Mars day and evening, all the judging sheets were collected by our vice principal but then basically piled in a corner and forgotten.

This was because of two factors: First, we had our first year school accreditation visit during the week right after our final presentations, so the administration had to immediately switch gears and worry about that as soon as the project day was done. The judging sheets were therefore not tabulated or the results announced immediately, and so the students didn’t get the feedback they needed, nor did they have a requirement to reflect on how they did, what they learned, and how they contributed. This should have been built into the schedule and made a requirement of the project. My fault there.

Second, I got sick. I was coming down with a cold the day of the presentations, which was a Friday. I was so exhausted by taking on too much myself that I hadn’t been getting enough sleep or eating well. By the next week I had developed full-on bronchitis, one of the worst cases I’ve ever had. I had to take a day off and should have taken more, but the immediate need for all hands on deck for the accreditation forced me to be at school when I wasn’t feeling well enough to even stand up let alone try to talk. All I could do was croak, and it just got worse as the week progressed, not better. It took four weeks to get over the bronchitis, post-nasal drip, and coughing. I didn’t have the energy to follow up on the judging sheets other than asking an occasional question of the vice principal, who was much too busy to do anything about them.

After several weeks and the accreditation were over, she finally tabulated the results and we announced the winning teams. I wanted to go over the forms and provide more detailed feedback to each team, but the forms had been thrown out by accident. She thought we were done – I hadn’t communicated my desire to use the forms further. My fault again.

So in the end, we failed at providing the necessary feedback and time for reflection that are essential for student learning in PBL. We learned from our mistakes and built in a better system for our second year. I hope it worked.


Engineering design model

  1. Critique and Revision: Along the same lines as number five, we did try to build in a day about one month before the final deadline where student teams would have to provide a progress report, but when we got to that point only a few teams were ready. Those were the teams that did the best on the project, as their mentor teachers were providing continuing feedback and chances for revision. The teams that weren’t ready hadn’t been getting the feedback they needed to stay on track.

My suggestion here would be to set milestones/partial deadlines into the projects. I do this with my end-of-year STEAM Showcases. Students have to present to their peers, get feedback from them, make revisions, present again to elementary student classes, get feedback from the teachers, make final revisions, then present in the end to the public. We should have done the same with our Mars project. We would have caught any errors or lack of progress earlier on and teams would have had time for course corrections.

Carson-wind tunnel present

One of our student leaders presenting on his wind tunnel experiments. Some of the students did dress up well, but not all of them seemed to have gotten the memo.

  1. Publicly Presented Product: All the teams created a final product and presentation, but some more effectively. One difficulty was in training the teachers to use the same grading standards during the presentations; some were much more particular than others (or than I would have been). I didn’t develop the judging rubric – I was able to gratefully hand that off to another teacher. But I should have followed up with all the other teachers to make sure they understood how to use it. I was so busy just getting all the teams ready to present that I didn’t even think about training the judges. I could have handed this task off as well.

However, that being said, I thought the presentations went well. My video team recorded all the presentations, and from what I was able to see the students did an admirable job of presenting the basics of their projects. What we needed was some work training them on presentation skills, such as dressing up and not chewing gum and being on time for their appointments. One team got their wires crossed and didn’t show up on time. Others took the presentation too casually in how they dressed, talked, etc. For example, they would say things like, “Well, you know – uh, yeah.” They really didn’t have a clue how to be professional.

What we needed was to train the teams on presentation skills and overall excellence or quality. What does a quality project look like? What is the level of language, dress, and professionalism expected? I tried to train the team leaders in our weekly meetings, but toward the end the leaders were so concerned with the logistics of finishing that they didn’t think much about quality. Some were so busy they couldn’t attend the meetings. That needs to change, not just for our project but for most PBL I’ve seen, and that is something I will talk about in a future post: How do you teach quality?

Final Notes:

In final summary, for our first attempt at school-wide PBL, our students did well and our basic theme was good, though not great. We needed more student buy in from the start. Certainly there were needed improvements. We had the choice of proceeding with our initial project during our first year of operation or waiting until we had our act together and our feet on the ground. My argument was that we billed ourselves as a PBL school, and the students and parents were expecting us to make good on our promise. Even if we had a whole year to prepare, we would eventually have to just jump in and do it, so why not jump in now? We knew it wouldn’t be perfect and that we would learn by doing, and we were right: it wasn’t perfect, but we did learn a great deal.

Waiting for Trax

AAI students waiting for the TRAX red line train to visit Clark Planetarium.

For a final prize, we used the money we raised from the auction during our presentation night to fund a pizza party and to take the winning teams to Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City. We rode the Trax commuter rail system Red Line into the city, then switched to the Blue Line and got off right by the planetarium. We took a group photo in what had been the Mars room (but was now the Titan room) and the students enjoyed learning from the interactive exhibits, which have been recently upgraded. It was a nice way to cap off the whole project, and our way of showing appreciation to the teams for their hard work.

AAI students to planetarium

AAI students riding TRAX on our way to the Clark Planetarium.

Earlier in the semester, we had taken all the students to The Leonardo museum in Salt Lake for exhibits on flight and robots in science fiction. I got to hang out with Robbie, R2-D2, and Gort. That is the advantage of being a small school located near a Trax station – we can be fairly mobile when we want to be.

I would like to thank all the students who stepped up and lead teams and worked amazingly hard to create projects. They showed creativity, innovation, leadership, persistence, and excellence. They learned about different subject areas (writing, art, math, engineering, media design, construction) while they worked on these projects and did so because they were motivated and curious. Whatever the results, they will remember these projects, so the experience was worthwhile for them and for our school.

Walking to planetarium

AAI teachers and students walking to the Clark Planetarium. These were the winning teams for our Mars Exploration projects. The hard work of the teachers and students made our PBL experience an overall success.

I also thank the teachers who did so much to mentor their teams and encourage them, helping them find their way through the complexities of project management while also allowing them the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them.

What I Learned:

My own take away is that I need to trust the entire team of teachers to help out. I tried to do too much; this is because I’m used to being the only teacher doing project-based learning in my school and so I’ve had to do it all myself. With a whole school and an entire faculty to work with, I should have delegated jobs more and trusted other teachers to complete them. I couldn’t think of everything, and needed their help, but was reluctant to accept it. If there were failures in our project, they were mine. Where we succeeded was due to the incredible students who worked so hard and were so very creative. I can’t take any credit for that. Their enthusiasm and willingness to do hard things will make them great leaders and innovators. I look forward to seeing what they will become.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Big Mars Day: Presenting our Final Projects

Mars still-Marineris

Students at AAI chose Mars Exploration as a theme for our first annual school-wide project.

After our return from the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference we had about one more month to finish up our school-wide Mars Exploration projects. Thirteen teams had condensed down to eleven and were (for the most part) intently working towards their final presentations on April 28th, 2017. We also had about twelve small group and individual projects that were nearing completion.

There were a number of challenges that had to be overcome, as individual teams and as a faculty and school. For me, it became increasingly clear that I was stretched too thin and trying to take on too much. I’ve never been good at delegating, and in previous schools I had to do all of the project-based activities myself. I forgot that others could help me now. Fortunately, other teachers recognized this and volunteered to take some of the responsibilities on, such as developing a scoring rubric for the final presentations and becoming judges and scorers. I leaned heavily on the team mentor teachers to provide the final push needed to motivate the teams. This final stage is always the hardest – when you think you’re done but are now in the polishing and revision stages of a project, which can take longer than the rest of the project combined.

Mousetronaut group-s

The Mousetronaut group with mentor teacher Bob Warren.

My own team, led by two amazing 8th graders, did a great job of recording photos and videos but we were behind on the editing phases. I had hoped to find some decent online video editing software and use all of our computers, but there wasn’t any software I could find that could do the job without needing to be downloaded. I had to rely on my own computer for all the editing. This created a bottleneck since only a few students could work on it at a time. Organizing, naming, and storing all the photos and video clips took much of our time, and so our edit of the clips was not done in time for April 28th. In fact, after more than a year, it is still not finished and probably never will be. Instead, I tasked my group with videotaping the final presentations, which took place in several rooms during the school day simultaneously. We also worked up cameras and locations for our evening public event.

Dave with Robbie-s

David Black with Robbie the Robot. As our Mars Day approached, I was getting a bit freaked out. “Monsters from the Id! Monsters from the Id!”

Gold Standard project-based learning (PBL) requires a public presentation of student products/projects. We planned this in two stages, both on April 28th. The first would be whole group presentations before faculty and community judges, with a tight set of assessment rubrics. We would videotape these presentations. Then, that evening, we would have an open house event and invite in parents and the community to see the presentations on a rotating schedule in our library. The individual projects were viewed in the gym with a fundraising raffle and refreshments in the main hallway between. I would have liked to spread this out over several days, but the very next week we were going into our first school accreditation and needed to have the Mars project completed before then. It made for a very long and busy day.

Going in to the final week before the deadline, teams were at various stages. Some were done and in good shape and well prepared. Others were stalled out and lacked the concern or motivation to finish, while others were somewhere in-between and a bit panicked over getting things done in time. We increased the amount of Mars project time to accommodate their needs and I worked long hours helping the individual team leaders, going over their draft presentations and making suggestions. I was helping to print out a 3D model of a Mars lander for one sub-team to test in a homemade wind tunnel while teaching Google slides to another team while trying to explain the judging criteria to a third team, all at once.

Mars group leaders

Some of the student leaders for our Mars project at AAI. Out of 13 projects, 7 were led by female students and four were led by 7-8th grade students.

Finally, the day arrived and the teams were more or less prepared to present. Let me go over their results individually:

Mousetronaut Project:

Noah’s team was under the mentorship of Bob Warren, our math and engineering teacher. The student leaders were well motivated and self-directed, and had a highly cohesive team. They ordered parts for building a homemade three-stage rocket with large engines and separation charges, a plexiglass compartment for the mouse, and Bluetooth instruments for measuring altitude and G-forces along with a camera. They tested the rocket without the mouse and found the maximum acceleration and deceleration were about 3.0 Gs, mild enough for the mouse to survive. They got some great telemetry and video from the launch.

Moustronaut group-s

The Mousetronaut group preparing to launch their homemade 3-stage rocket with Major Tom the mouse on board.

About two weeks before the final date, they conducted a morning launch of Major Tom the Mousetronaut from our school parking lot. I took photos and video of the group as they placed Major Tom in the capsule and prepared for launch. The rocket streaked skyward, but with a mouse inside, it was slower and had less G-forces than the unmoused launch. It reached about 1200 feet before the top stage separated and the chute ejected.

Major Tom pre-launch-2

Major Tom the Mousetronaut in his capsule preparing to launch. His parachute did not deploy correctly, but he survived the flight without physical harm. As for psychological harm, well – it certainly beats getting fed to a snake.

But the ejection charge was too strong and one of the chute’s lanyards broke. The chute didn’t open but turned into a streamer instead, and Major Tom’s capsule plummeted toward the Earth. I was afraid the mouse was a goner, but when student spotters reached the capsule he was alive and well, although a bit shaken. The telemetry was excellent, and they were able to convert the Earth norms into Mars conditions and draw some great conclusions. They showed some of the video during their presentation, and did very well overall.

Mousetronaut presentation-s

Leaders of the Mousetronaut group presenting at our Mars Day before judges.

3D Mars Lander Animation Project:

3D animation gruop

3D Mars Animation group at work. The PVC frame on the left is for holding an iPod to make stop-motion animations.

Hallee’s group had more of a struggle staying on task, and she eventually split her team into two smaller groups to better accommodate what they wanted to do. One sub-team wanted to create the animation using 3D modeling software (many of them had been in my 3D class or wanted to learn more). A second sub-team, led by a 6th grade student named Carson, decided to take the 3D rocket model, print it out, and test it in a wind tunnel. Once they got their goals straightened out work proceeded at a better pace.

3D animation group-Haley

Members of the 3D Mars Lander animation group working on their project.

They had some difficulty coordinating their efforts for a final presentation and therefore didn’t do as well for the judges, but the animation had some good sections using Mars data and the videos of the wind tunnel tests were well done. Their tunnel had a clear plastic window and they used smoke to test the air stream. The rocket actually performed quite well in the tests. Their evening presentation was impressive.

Rocket ship

3D rendering of the model rocket ship that Carson’s group printed and tested in a wind tunnel. The results were good.

Carson presenting

Carson presenting the results of his wind tunnel test of the Mars rocket.

Animation group animation

A still frame of the Mars 3D animation of a colony ship and lander on Mars.



Mars Colony Simulation:

Ari’s group developed a role-playing game that simulated various Mars colonies in competition for scarce resources. She asked if we could take an entire Mars project day to have all the groups play the simulation, and most of the school participated on April 21, one week before the final date. Her team did an excellent job monitoring and videotaping the simulation, even interviewing the players during and after as different crises developed and the teams made decisions to either share or steal resources.

Their final video was interesting. It could have used more editing, but they did a valiant effort for the time they had between the simulation and the final date. The participants had fun and found it to be a great learning experience.

Mars Sport:

Sports group with goal-s

Mars Sport group posing in front of their goal. It has a large goal area at the bottom plus five smaller goal areas around the top for higher points.

The sport team had a major challenge in that their mentor teacher, Rich, was laid off several weeks into the project. As a school we had counted on having the normal Title 1 funds, but as a suburban school in a fairly wealthy area, not enough parents filled out the required paperwork and the funds were denied, leaving us suddenly short in our budget. Two teachers and two support personnel were let go, including two mentor teachers.

Sports group planning game-s

The Mars Sport group planning the game play and rules.

The team leaders, Sam and Seth, were able to pick up the pieces and keep going, although it took a few weeks to get their momentum back. Once the team got over the loss, they developed the rules for the game (which was based on Mars gravity), built a model arena, created team names and logos, and built a scale goal post and played the game in our gym (although at Earth gravity – it would have been awesome to watch at Mars gravity). They modified the rules to match their game play, then presented the final rules at our April 28th presentations and displayed the goal post and model arena at our evening event.

Playing Mars game-s

Practicing the game in our school gym, but under Earth conditions. It would be fun to see it done under Mars gravity.

Mars Soil Project:

Red and blue light chamber-s

Mars soil plant growth chambers, set up to control temperature, humidity, and lighting. The blue chamber had Earth soil and light, the red chamber Mars soil simulant and lighting.

Two teams worked with our biology teacher to plant radishes and endive in simulated Mars soil. He was able to locate some Mars soil simulant at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, and they set up control and experimental groups, testing under Earth and Mars lighting. This was the closest project to a science data experiment, and they collected excellent data for about 45 days.

The biology teacher was the other teacher laid off, so the teams had to consolidate into one and do their best with the long-term substitutes we had, essentially providing their own leadership. Despite the setback they continued to run the experiment and collected great data. At first, all the seeds sprouted well and grew equally well between Earth and Mars soil, but as the plants matured the Mars plants became more sickly and their growth slowed. Eventually all of the Mars plants died or were near death at the end. The Mars soil had more clay particles and became heavy and waterlogged, but mostly the toxins in the soil (chlorates and peroxides) poisoned the plants. So sorry to The Martian – you couldn’t grow potatoes in Mars soil without some extreme chemical reconditioning. You’d be better off importing soil from Earth instead of using the native regolith of Mars, human fertilizer or not.

Hayley collecting Mars soil data-s

Hayley measuring and recording plant growth data for the Mars soil project.

Their presentation was impressively done and well practiced and was one of our winning group presentations. Unfortunately, neither of the group leaders were able to present at our evening event – one had a job that he had to go to, the other was in the Mousetronaut group and helped to present there, so the public didn’t get to see much of what they had accomplished.

Mars soil growth chambers-s

More Mars soil growth chambers. Different sets of chambers tested different variables such as temperature, humidity, lighting, and type of soil.


Mars Video Game:

Hannah’s group worked hard on planning and creating content for a video game about Mars. They worked out the game play and levels and learned some programming in the Unity game engine. I knew from the start that this would be difficult to finish in the allotted time, as it takes years to plan, develop, and program a new game. At the end they presented on the how the game would work when it was finished and showed their content files. As a team they worked together well.

Hannah told me part way through that she was very nervous about running a team, as the year before she had been one of the shyest girls in her school. She had done a great job in my computer programming class, and decided to push herself to be a leader. She came through with flying colors despite not having the time to finish the project. There presentation was mostly about what they had learned about teamwork, which is a great thing to learn.

Mars History Poster Project:

This team was led by Sarah and focused on the history of Mars exploration, developing a poster on their research to hang up and discuss as at a history fair or science conference. They got the poster done with time to spare and decided to develop a short story in addition, which they got a good start on.

This was our smallest team. She had problems with one team member goofing off and asked if she could fire him, so I allowed her to give him a pink slip. When he realized he would now have to do an individual project, he petitioned to be reinstated on the team, which Sarah graciously allowed. He did well after that and contributed to the final effort.

There were a couple of small factual errors on the poster, but otherwise it was well designed and researched. Their idea for a short story was interesting, and I wish they could have completed it, but it was in addition to their original proposal anyway.

Mars Novella Project:

Novella group-s

Storm and Amanda and their team working on the Mars novella, about a multi-generational colony on the Red Planet.

This team had two highly motivated girls as team leaders, Amanda and Storm, who worked well together and were great leaders. The group decided on a plot for their novella about a colony on Mars over multiple generations. Chapters were assigned to different team members, and some members designed illustrations of the characters and colony. Amanda and Storm edited and coordinated the final novel and printed out a manuscript of over 40,000 words before the final night, even offering up a copy for the final auction that evening. They were also instrumental in planning much of the evening event and collecting donations for the auction. I relied on them a great deal and they came through with excellence.

Storm-Amanda present evening

Amanda and Storm presenting their novella project at our Mars evening event.

Mars colony drawing

Overall design of a Mars colony created by the Mars Illustration group.

Mars Illustrations Group:

Another group decided to plan out and design a colony on Mars, creating a series of illustrations. They created the overall layout, with modules for various functions such as agriculture, oxygen production, living quarters, etc. They drew views inside each module as well as vehicles and rovers for outside use. In their presentation, they added a great deal of research into conditions on Mars and described how their design was a realistic attempt to create a livable habitat. This was a very impressive project with a lot more to it than I had originally assumed. They went above and beyond their original specifications in their proposal, and I enjoyed their evening presentation. They learned a great deal about the reality of conditions on Mars.

Mars drawings group-s

The Mars Illustration group working on their group and individual projects.

This group also helped to paint the Mars habitat.

Mars Habitat Project:

Habitat model-2

A model of the Mars Habitat created by our second habitat group. It was designed with an octagonal central pod with four branching pods, one for sleep, one for cooking/meals, one for bathroom, and one for an airlock.

Two groups came up with essentially the same project idea: to build a full-sized habitat for a Mars colony, then live inside it for at least two days and simulate Mars conditions. For example, they would communicate to Earth only through Mission Control and experience a time delay similar to the Earth-Mars light speed delay. They would only go outside in space suits. Mission Control would provide information and run them through a series of crises to test their ability to get along and survive in a closed habitat.

Jason and Mike building habitat-s

Jason and Mike building the habitat in the school parking lot.

One group, led by Jason, jumped off quickly and started getting donations of lumber and supplies from local hardware stores. Mike, Jason’s father (who also went with us to Houston), brought his tools and helped the students assemble the habitat in our parking lot. By the time we went to Houston, the habitat was almost finished with an octagonal central pod and smaller individual quarters radiating off in three directions, including an air lock in the fourth direction and a bathroom.

Jasper-Ryan build habitat-s

Students in the Habitat team helping to put the walls in place. This team was able to secure donations of lumber and worked well together on the building phase.

The other group was slower in getting organized and didn’t go out and really ask for donations. The teacher mentor was much more reluctant to let the students use power tools, and insisted on building everything himself. When it became apparent that they were not going to get done in time, we made the executive decision to combine the groups and build only one habitat, with the other group building a scale model instead. The model was eventually finished on time.

Habitat under construction-2

The central octagonal pod while the Mars habitat was under construction.

We had a problem occur about a week after we returned from Houston in that one of the team leaders got into some trouble at school while in the habitat and was withdrawn from the school. The rest of the team, which had started out so well, essentially stalled out. Without the leadership of their teammate, they did not progress. Because the habitat was being used as a kind of clubhouse during lunch, we decided to seal it off until it was time for their test, but they never took the initiative to get the test going.

Moving roof to habitat-s

The Mars Habitat group lifting the frame for the central pod roof into place.

The mentor teacher was wise enough to let the students learn from their mistakes instead of forcing them to move forward on the project. We talked it over and decided that letting this team fail would be a good educational experience for them. About a week to go before the final deadline, the students realized that they had goofed off too long and they finally put together a presentation on why they had failed and what they learned from that. It was actually one of the better presentations, and shows one of the values of project-based learning: not all teams will succeed, and learning from failure should be an integral part of all education. We do our students a disservice when we prevent them from failing.

Building habitat-2

The Mars Habitat team building the framework.

Individual Projects:

Individual projects

Students visiting the individual and small team projects in our gym on our Mars Day, April 28, 2017.

In addition to the large team projects, we had about 12 individual or small team projects ready for display during our evening event. Several of them were building Mars-themed mods for Mine Craft using real Mars data. One involved testing a wing shape for a possible flying Mars rover. One small group project by some motivated 6th graders involved testing a material (as an iPhone cover) that resisted shattering, including dropping it on the floor and hitting it with a hammer. This material could be used for Mars landers. One group designed clothing fashions for Mars colonists. We had these projects on display in the gym during the day and then again at night during our evening event, and judges went to each one and voted for a best of show for the individual projects as well as the large group ones.

Wing shape individ project

Judges viewing the Wing Shape individual project on our Mars Day.

Evening Event:

At the end of the regular school day we needed to set up for the evening event, which we had advertised with flyers all over town and mini-posters sent home to parents. Many of my students volunteered to stay after school and help set up, and I am very grateful to them. I got the cameras charged up as best I could and we moved all the projects downstairs into the library, setting up a projector to show the projects to the public. At 6:00 the show began.

Smach group-4-28 evening

The Smash-Proof Material group presenting during our Evening Mars Event.

We had about 75 parents and public members come, mostly to see their own students’ presentations, but they stayed to watch the others present as well. Between the group presentations, they visited the individual projects in the gym, and the students there did a great job, especially the wing design and the shatter-proof covering groups. They had the audience try to smash an old iPhone with a hammer. We served refreshments and had various items that had been donated out on display for an auction. We raised some funds for this, not much but enough for a pizza party for the team members later in the year.

Mars clothing group-4-28

Mars Fashion project. This group called their Martian clothing design shop 687 Design, as that is the number of days it takes for Mars to orbit the sun.

The large group presentations were held in the library and were well done and well attended. We videotaped as many as we could (I was running out of camera space by then, what with the presentations earlier in the day) and got many photos. My video group helped out with this, and acted as ushers and helpers. I am most grateful for the students who helped out, and in my opinion the evening was a great success. It was a chance for us as teachers to show off the amazing work these students have done, showcase the school’s PBL mission, and get to know the parents better in an informal setting.

Mars Minecraft project

A Mars Minecraft mod with a colony incased in a force field to protect it and maintain atmosphere. About four individual students each developed their own versions of Mars-themed Minecraft environments based on actual Mars facts and data.

By the time we had finished cleaning up and putting everything away, it was late and I still had a 45 minute drive to get home. I was exhausted and dead on my feet, and could feel a sore throat coming on. I managed to make it home safely, tired but exhilarated at what we had accomplished on this long but memorable day.

Mars individ project-s

Small group presentations during our Mars Day event.

In my next post on the Mars project, I will discuss the results and give a final evaluation of what we did right and what we need to improve.

Mars evening audience

We had a good turn out for our Mars evening event, even considering we charged admittance (to raise money). Here some of the attendees are in our library listening to a presentation. My video group filmed and photographed all the day’s activities.

Middle school smash group

The Smash-Proof Material group. They wrapped an old iPhone in the material and hit it with a hammer. It didn’t break! It could be used for building landers for Mars.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment