Category Archives: .H1 Honor student diversity and development.

So close . . . and yet so far.

One of my science students, PK, recommended a game to me called Doodle God, from JoyBits Ltd.  My student said, “since we are studying chemistry, which is about combining things, check out this game, where you try to combine things.”

I was excited to give it a try and have now been playing it off-and-on for about a month.

Here’s what I like

  • Easy to learn to play.
  • Very rewarding to see two things swirl and create something new.
  • Some combinations are very creative, not immediately obvious, but logical.

Here’s what I don’t like

  • From the start, the portrayal of a monotheistic, creative deity as a grandfatherly, tinkering, bumbling, bug-eyed, wild-haired, white-bearded, tongue-protruding simpleton, seems borderline blasphemous for at least three major religious traditions of the world.  But, hey, whatever sells…
  • When I let my 8-year-old play—ignoring the 13+ rating of the game—I should not have been too surprised when certain risqué themes emerged.  Alcohol, drugs, sex, [censored], rock-n-roll are all there, and were they all necessary?  But, hey, whatever sells…
  • From the beginning I was a little peeved when I tried to combine certain things—that made logical sense to me—but they didn’t combine.  Similarly, when I saw hints which led to things that did wondrously(?) and improbably combine, I almost put the game down.  (And how was I supposed to guess that?)

Seeing that the dislikes for me seem to outweigh the likes, why am I writing this blog post?  I feel this game is *so close* to being something of real and amazing educational value.  Imagine something like “Chemistry Zeus” [any similarities between deities living or dead is purely coincidental], where students start with a few elements and either bombard them to make new elements (nuclear physics) or combine them with other elements or molecules to make compounds, or whole families of substances.  I think I would play that game, and if it taught a little science or history of science along the way, cool!

JoyBits, if you need a scientific consultant, you can contact me.  Smile

Some math fooling around

You start with 4 elements and are asked to deduce pairings that create successively more complex elements.  Since the deduction part is flawed in my opinion, I believe most successful game-players resort to trial and error.  Let me explain.

If I give you N items and tell you some of them might pair, by trial and error you would take the 1st item and try to pair it with the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. up to N.  When you are done with the 1st item you then take up the 2nd item, and try some pairings, but you don’t have to test it with the 1st item, since you already did that, so you test 2nd+3rd, and 2nd+4th, and 2nd+5th, etc.  one way to visualize this is with a grid.

  1 2 3
1 1+1 1+2 1+3
2 X 2+2 2+3
3 X X 3+3
Doodle God game with 3 elements (1-3)
Table shows all the combinations you need to check.
You do not need to check combinations marked “X”

The square with 1+1 means you are taking the 1st element in the game and trying to pair it with itself.  The 1+2 means that you are trying to pair the 1st element with the 2nd element.  Notice that the square that would be 2+1 in this example is marked with “X”.  That means you don’t need to test that combination because in the game 1+2 is the same as 2+1, the order you click on elements to pair them in the game doesn’t matter.  (If someday it did, the following analysis would be invalid.)

The formula for how many pairings you have to check for N total elements is

Total Pairs You Need to Check = N2-(1/2)(N-1)(N)
(thanks to Wolfram Alpha for helping me evaluate a sum)

We can verify that this formula is correct, by checking for N=3, plugging that into the formula and then counting in the table above to see if the results agree.  For N=3, from the table I would need to check 6 pairings to exhaust all possible combinations in the game.  The formula predicts

Total Pairs You Need to Check = N2-(1/2)(N-1)(N)

Total Pairs You Need to Check = 3*3-(1/2)(3-1)(3)=9-(1/2)(2)(3)=9-(1/2)(6)=9-3=6.

Now, the object of the game is to find successful pairings so let’s say 1+1 is successful.  But that would produce a 4th element.  That means we have to check more potential pairs.  (Note that some pairings produce two elements, that happens pretty rarely so the analysis so far and following is not invalidated.)

If successful, then you create a 4th element, and the table would now look like this:

  1 2 3 4
1 1+1      
2 N      
3 N N    
4 N N N  
Doodle God game with 3 elements
But the 1st element paired with 1st element produced a new 4th element.
The table of combinations thus adds a row and a column
Notice that although the 1st element paired with the 1st element made a 4th element, you haven’t tested any combinations of that 4th element yet.  You will have to test those, so we add a column to the table.
The number of total combinations we needed to check when we only had 3 elements was 6.  We tried one pairing of elements and we were successful so now we only need to check 5 plus the new pairings we potentially created.  It turns out that when you add 1 new element to an N-element game, you add N+1 more pairs to check.  In this case, i.e. N=3, we get 6-1+4=9.
Can we write a formula for how many pairs we still need to check on the 12th turn of the game?  Sure!  First let’s define a few things.
N = total number of elements in the game that you start with.
t = the turn of the game that you are on, in other words how many pairs you have tried already
s = successful matches already
u = unsuccessful matches already
Note that one relationship we can spot right away is
t = s + u
Which just says that the number of unsuccessful + successful matches you have made is equal to the number of turns you have been playing.  But the relationship we are after is “How many more matches do I need to test after t turns in the game?”  I believe this works, let’s try it out.
Potential Matches Left = (N+s)2-(1/2)(N+s-1)(N+s)-t
In the example above, N=3, t=1, s=1, u=0, the number of matches left to test, i.e. the number of blank squares in that grid is:
Notice that the function goes like a quadratic in the total number of elements, which means the game gets progressively harder as it goes along.  Even if you don’t blindly try all combinations, you still have to remember which combinations you have made and the combinations you haven’t or review all those elements you have not yet combined for “reasonable suspicion” of being able to combine to form new element.  We say the order of that comparison is O(N2), O() means “order of”.
The tradeoff that becomes important in the game is that if every turn in the game produces a new element (s=t), then the number of new combinations increases quadratically.  But that is the reward of the game, producing a new element.  The frequency of reward needs to be traded-off with the rate of increase in complexity of the game.  You can make the game less complex (s << t) by not letting any elements combine, but then who would play it?

Back to the game Doodle Farm (Free)

Meanwhile…a game that would allow players to combine things in ways that are accurate given physical laws, e.g. chemistry, would be an amazing pedagogical tool.  None of the flavors of Doodle God to date seem to represent any even remotely accurate view of the physical world.
I played Doodle Farm (Free) and used a Google Sheet to keep track of my pairings, much like the table above.  I was able to solve the game fairly systematically that way.  But what was annoying (and a deal-breaker for me, sadly) is that two of the first 4 pairings were completely illogical.  Not that the game makes any pretense of teaching accurate animal husbandry, but the whole point of this post is that the game would be used by Teachers if it were more accurate.
Doodle Farm Free initial elements and successful pairings.
How does Mouse+Mouse=Rat+Cat?
How does Worm+Mouse=Ant?

Voice and Choice in Physics

This past week I asked my students what they wanted to study next in our Advanced Physics class.  (Note:  this is not an AP class, since I’m just a physics teacher padawan.)

I listed the remaining chapters in the book (12-31) with their titles and sections.  I asked the students to rank each chapter in interest from 1-5.  Sample size is N=11, 3 females and 8 males.

I took all the ratings for each chapter and averaged.  I also averaged across the ratings for each section, so I could see if there was a pattern of interest across the sections.

Here are the results.


When you group the Chapter Ratings by Section, you see a trend that you might have suspected, namely that students want to study Modern Physics.  However, if you note the Standard Deviation for Modern Physics, it is definitely wider, in other words, some students do *not* want to study Modern Physics.


Either way, next week we are off to Chapter 20, Electricity.  I can’t wait to talk about analogs to F=ma that exist in electronics , i.e. V=IR.

I should also note here that some of my inspiration for this move was some reading I was doing in the “Physics First” community.  Let me put some references here that speak with particular persuasion in favor of teaching Physics to 9th graders.


High School Committee of the American Association of Physics Teachers [AAPT]. (2006). Physics First: An Informational Guide for Teachers, School Administrators, Parents, Scientists and the Public.  AAPT. Retrieved November 9, 2013 from

How I Got Some Freshman Science Students To Read “The Economist”

Last week I was grappling with a way to teach the Washington State Science Standards, in particular the INQUIRY A piece.

As is often the case, inspiration came in the nick-of-time.  I would have my students

  1. gain an appreciation for the breadth of science
  2. practice some literacy skills
  3. generate some “scientific questions”
  4. work in groups
  5. practice some creativity

Here’s how it went.  The room is arranged in groups.  At the beginning of class, we review science as a pervasive quest for knowledge, which often looks like questions.  Define/Review scientific questions, and propose a form that students can use “How does ____ affect ____.”  (Is this Act 1 for Science, a la Dan Meyer?)

Tell students that there are pages from a magazine (suitably shuffled) on their group tables and that they are to get with partners and create a poster of 5 scientific questions which will be generated the following way.  Your partner takes a page and finds a noun on that page.  You take a different page and find a noun on that page.  You then come together and form a question “How does noun #1 affect noun #2.”  (Act 2, you have a tool/method, now apply it.)

Where this spins off into greatness is when students:

  • find themselves reading snippets of articles from the Economist for context, since they have been “struck in the curiousity bone
  • find themselves posing questions like “do bees affect cancer?” which might lead to a long and fruitful career in science for this 9th grader
  • realize that sometimes science questions look superficially quite silly but hide an incredible profundity, like “will dry ice slide down a sand dune?

Finally for Act 3, we have a wall full of questions, from 4 periods of science students, which we can now take to the next level of refinement of the question, and posing more questions.  Take a look:


WAS Day 5

Washington Aerospace Scholars, Day 5, Thursday, July 18, 2013

Thursday was the last full day of activities for Week 4 of the 2013 Washington State Aerospace Scholars program. Since Friday is the banquet, which concludes the program, students were busy today preparing presentations and poster boards for that presentation. There were also Impact Statements to write, wherein students describe how the program has affected them and their career plans. Those of us on staff also have our student evaluations due the next day.

Red Team is pretty well prepared for Friday, but I notice a little bit of complacency (hubris?) developing in some of the more influential members of the team. I’m going to have to think more about this, since I don’t want to gloss over it. What I am trying to put my finger on is a certain resentment that develops in highly performing students that they have worked so hard, when they see others around them perhaps not working so hard, but apparently having more “fun”. The perfect storm happens when high-achievers realize they have met all the requirements, worked really hard, and then see others perhaps doing better than them (on some arbitrary scale) but enjoying better morale or team esprit d ’corps.

One high point (literally and figuratively) of our week was the launching of rockets. After a quick briefing from our rocket expert each team got to press the button igniting the engine and sending our creations skyward. Red Team rocket launched, cruised and deployed parachute successfully for a safe return of the rock “sample” to earth. Way to go team! In fact, all teams had successful launch and recovery of their rockets.

After the launch activity, we traveled to Aerojet where we got a tour of their facility. I’m intrigued by the thought of standing in a place that has put together high reliability rocket motors that have traveled (or will soon travel) to *all* of the planets. Aerojet is an incredible story of business started near Boeing’s plants, then moved to Redmond, and today supplies rockets that have *never* been the cause of a NASA mission failure. Great job Aerojet!

After returning to MoF, teams worked on final preparations for our presentations on Friday. We also took part in our last Engineering Challenge of the week, getting a Lego Mindstorms Rover to visit as many rock samples as possible on a simulated Martian terrain and return to base. Red Team perfected a route to the first two samples but run out of time to perfect a path to a third sample. Folks on the team were disappointed. Our post-mortem analysis of our task raised a couple of questions. Why were our paths to the first two samples unnecessarily complex? Why was our rover design less than optimal for the terrain and mission requirements? It is a good question why sometimes bright people miss elegant, simpler solutions, while opting for more complex or complicated solutions that inherently have more failure modes.

Our final activities of the evening involved signing some pictures for distribution to WAS Program supporters. (Thank You Washington Aerospace Scholar Program Supporters!) We also completed some final housekeeping tasks for Red Team.

I was impressed by a presentation at the end of our day from the Team America Rocket Challenge which offers cash prizes for student competitions in the field of rocketry. It has been a constant theme this week that students need more hands-on experience in their lives and in their educational environments, and today was no exception. Can imagine what would happen if we had not only soccer-moms, but rocket-dads? What if participation maker-related activities such as rockets, robotics, and remote-controlled hobbies rivaled things such as sports and video games?

My takeaway from this day was the challenge it is to motivate those otherwise highly motivated students to go beyond the checklists (grades) that they have gotten so good at mastering. The real adventure lies beyond expending just enough effort to do just a little better than your current peers or “competition”. Push beyond a higher level of common mediocrity, go for it!

WAS Day 4

Washington Aerospace Scholars, July 17, 2013

Our day started with Mission Briefing, as usual. The teams are starting to get some urgency in their interactions, we don’t have a lot of time left. On this morning the Ethics Team is paid a significant compliment by their faculty consultant that they had a teleconference with, namely that their ideas/questions had a depth that was not often (ever?) seen by that consultant. (The consultant is a professor with space ethics experience at the University of Washington.) There was some confusion at the briefing related to issues that come from the structure of the projects which the teams are working on. Each team has a main topic and then can choose 2 subtopics from a list. When other teams don’t know which subtopics have been chosen, they are sometimes caught thinking that another team is covering a detail when in fact they are not. It seems like this could be a common problem in a project-based learning activity such as this, the solution of which would be to better align and inform participants about what to do when topics have *not* been selected. Completeness in covering one broad topic, but not going into depth on another subtopic seems to be a challenge for some of the scholars.

At 8:30a we met in a main auditorium at the MoF for a video conference call with NASA. Specifically, we were able to participate in a two-way audio, one-way video chat with Mission Control at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas via a program called the Digital Learning Network. After a short introduction to some of the current space missions underway, e.g. the International Space Station (ISS) and the new Orion Spacecraft, we were able to pose questions to the Flight Director then on-duty in Mission Control. Our questions were pre-submitted but were then read live to the NASA folks who then answered them. The question and answer portion was carried live on NASA TV. Since I am a geek, I was able to bring up the NASA-TV feed on my phone and watch our session “live”, i.e. via NASA-TV and delayed about 1-2 minutes, instead of on the screen in our room. One of my favorite questions was “where is the International Space Station right now”, in answer to which the NASA folks turn around and look at the big map on the wall and give an answer.

It was a fairly non-routine call to Mission Control since just the day before, an astronaut on the ISS had experienced some water (coolant from his Personal Life Support System) collect in his helmet during a spacewalk. The Flight Director we spoke with described a higher level of excitement than usual during that event, which resulted in the safe return of the astronaut to the ship after an abort of the spacewalk. [Recall, if you are imagining a pool of water in the bottom of a facemask, that
in microgravity, water in the helmet is floating around, in either large or small blobs, getting in your eyes, nose and mouth, and you can’t reach up and into your helmet and do anything about it.  According to the report, the astronaut affected was willing
to continue the mission until another astronaut was able to come closer and look into the mask and recommend that Mission Control advise on an early termination of the spacewalk.  Much to be learned from situations like this and a timely reminder for scholars
in this program about the perils which still exist in space although it may seem routine.]

At 11:00am teams were to participate in the Design Review Board, which was mentors and assistant mentors and HQ giving feedback on Mission Project Work that each team had completed to date and also allowing them to get an overall feel of where all teams were on their projects. I did not attend that meeting, but hear from the Red Team Mentor that we were grilled on a few points, but were not the team most grilled.

Time is short, but to put that in perspective, teams have limited time to complete their presentations. Presentation drafts are due on Thursday (tomorrow) and they will be presenting them at the luncheon on Friday.

In the afternoon we went to the University of Washington to hear from Jim Hermanson at the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and tour some research labs. All teams visited the Nonlinear Dynamics and Control Lab (101 AERB), the RAM (ramjet lab) and the ESS Plasma Lab (Johnson 275A).

[I would like to type comments here on how I think the visits to the lab went, but let me do that later.]

After the lab visits we had the Rover Request for Proposals (RFP) presentations in Johnson Hall 111. Each team presented their thinking for the design of a new rover and based on the quality and depth of information in their proposal they were awarded money for their team’s account. Red Team made a good impression on the 3 faculty/graduate research folks on the panel and came away with a total of $50 million for our team’s account. I must say here that HQ had warned us that we were not to produce carbon copies of the Curiosity Rover (currently on Mars) for this presentation and I think all teams more or less heeded that warning.

After dinner in McMahon hall, we took our schoolbus back to the MoF for our evening activities.

The staff of HQ, and other SR-AFs here this week had been saying all week that the “Payload Lofting” engineering challenge was the most fun to watch. Based on student responses to the activity it also appeared to be fun to participate in. Here’s the setup: a fishing line is attached to a second-story balcony and railing and the other end is on the ground. Students are asked to use balloons to move the unassembled parts of their “rocket” (another engineering challenge) from the ground below to the balcony which signifies Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Various monies are charged/credited to the teams for multiple balloons that they use, for successfully being the first team to get a part lofted, for being the first team to lift all their parts successfully, and for leaving any parts on the ground at the end of the activity. The results of our lofting exercise have not been published yet, but Red Team was the first to loft a part successfully and the third team to complete the lofting of all their parts.

The next challenge we completed or prepared to complete was the rocket-building and egg drop (lander) activities. Our team had designed both of those together, but it now fell to half of the team (we were split up) to construct the design for the rocket and the lander simultaneously. I stayed with the lander team, and I’m happy to say that we were able to successfully get our egg to the ground from a third-story railing. However, we were not able to land our egg within the safe target and so only collected another $40 million (I think, let me double-check).

Once again, a bunch of tired—but invigorated—students and staff returned to the hotel to tell a few stories from the day and turn in.

PS: I asked someone from HQ how hard it was to design the tasks so that an appropriate level of difficulty was achieved. In the payload lofting scenario, you would be surprised how high you can get parts of various weights on fishing line and a standard drinking straw with a 6-9-12 inch balloon. As far as the egg drop is concerned, eggs are much tougher than you think, and our team’s design while not flashy did get the job done. Again the implications for the educator and the classroom are: the projects teach so much in the way of problem solving and team work, you have to do them, and iterate as needed, and students will be engaged the whole way. What I take away is that doing something, anything in the real world will always lead to complexity sufficient enough to illuminate or demonstrate physical law. So get busy!

WAS Day 3

Washington Aerospace Scholars, Summer Residency, Tuesday, July 16, 2013

After typing this report on Tuesday morning for Monday, I went and found our System Manager and gave her some feedback over breakfast. I think that was an effective move, but it was made possible or necessary due to reflections on the prior day and where we needed to go for the day ahead. I am reminded that daily or regular reflection on my teaching can have the same effect, namely taking stock in what has gone well or what could go better, helps make future outcomes better.

We started the day at the MoF in our Mission Briefing. Each team got up and gave a status of where their team was in the performing of various tasks. I think our session went well except for one of our team members who contradicted or sought to clarify our status. I will talk to that team member offline about how unprofessional that looks, since they should have clarified their status internally before going before the other teams and showing that our team had some internal disconnect. I’m proud of my team having concise status, being mostly on the same page, and being able to communicate what they might need from other teams, e.g. red flags or warnings about where they might be blocked or need further clarification. Status meetings are valuable things despite the general revulsion (anecdotal? See Dilbert cartoon.) that people have for meetings in general. I found some of my memories from my former life at Microsoft flowing back about how teams posture and sometimes put up smoke screens about progress that is communicated more glowingly than it actually is. How could status meetings be used in an educational context? The answer is fairly straightforward if students are working on a clearly defined project with dated deliverables and interdependencies with other teams that they need to resolve. However, how could they be used in a classroom that isn’t doing projects? Is there a way to couch a quarter or semester of learning goals as a project that students need to make progress on, and give them tools for measuring their progress, reporting on that progress and taking corrective action for lackluster results? I think the answer might be standards-based grading, and I think it is something to try which will serve students well in a variety of future careers. I don’t think students are naturally project-oriented, or team-status aware, but I think all can improve on those basic job skills.

Over lunch we spoke with a Geologist on MSL, the Mars Science Laboratory mission that is supporting the Curiosity Rover on Mars. We did so over a Google hangout with video and audio. The video and audio quality were good, but it very hard to see what was on the screen, and I sat closer than any scholar. From a tech standpoint, there must be a way to share desktop or documents in higher fidelity, or there might have been a way to get scholars closer to the screen so they could engage better. (I think I will ask some of my students today for some feedback on that session, to see if they noticed this same thing that I did.) As a footnote to my comment yesterday about the usefulness of bringing experts into the classroom, today was proof that you can bring those experts in virtual ways (video, audio) and still get good engagement or deliver good content to students.

Red Team had a phone conference call with a researcher working on fusion drive at the University of Washington today which went very well. I’m told that students even pointed out some ideas that researchers had not considered, which is always exhilarating. I didn’t attend the conference call as a way to support other scholars who weren’t involved in that topic (Propulsion). Here again I was reminded of some management learnings that I have gained from my prior experience. Namely, as a manager/leader it is not leadership to spend time with those workers that are highly motivated and have the same learning style as you. It is more effective leadership to speak with your whole team, i.e. apportion your time more equitably so that all your team knows that you are supportive and eager for them to succeed. For example, in our preparation for our second Peer Presentation, I realized that I didn’t really have a good grasp on the Reflectance Spectrometers that we were supposed to be presenting. Furthermore, I realized that the scholar on our team also didn’t have a good idea of what they wanted students to take away from her part of the presentation on those devices either. I realized that this was a coaching opportunity and a teachable moment. Both teachers and presenters need to know what the main goal of their presentation as information transfer needs to be. When I was able to coach my scholar on some presentation tips, they were more confident, the material was relayed better, and the overall presentation went much better. A comment from HQ was “I have not seen Reflectance Spectrometers presented as clearly as Red Team just did.” Nice work! Overall, we got $40 million bonus for a 9.3 score (out of 10) on our presentation. That goes a little way towards reducing the pain we feel from getting -$20 million on our first presentation.

We took a grand tour of Boeing’s assembly facility at Paine Field in Everett. I realized that what we were seeing on the tour were mostly skilled (highly skilled!) labor jobs, and not really day-to-day STEM jobs at Boeing when we tour that facility. I’m not so sure that students connected these massive machines with the pile of STEM work that goes into producing each one. Do I want to buy stock in Boeing based on their production estimates? Yes. Do I want to ride in a 787 Dreamliner? Most definitely! Do I know what the engineers do tucked away around those assembly lines all day? Not so much… Oh and one more question that is teasing me: does the production of airplanes with a high proportion of carbon fiber do a net sequester of carbon and thus help reduce greenhouse gases? I know the plane is green, but how green?

After the Boeing tour we spent some time at the MoF Restoration Center where aircraft are refurbished or stored when they are not at the Museum of Flight gallery. After seeing the massive amount of spare parts and tools and high-tech tools used on modern planes it was a little depressing to see the mostly volunteer, somewhat duck tape and baling wire operation that restoration is. However, I can appreciate the value of working on historical airplanes both as mechanical and engineering history, and as a “maker” type activity for students. I just didn’t find a lot of interpretive information at the Restoration Center. Not to belittle the volunteers who are contributing mightily to the preservation of our aeronautical heritage in any way!

As mentioned above, upon our return to MoF we had a successful Peer Presentation on Spectrometers. The team was very supportive of each other and wanted them to succeed. I should mention here that we timed our presentation and had scenarios we would do if we were over or under time. When we were under time, our presenter had a few questions prepared to ask the audience, and he did so, but somewhat humorously cut off the reply from the student answering the question to stay on our time, which he did, and our final time was 7:07.

I should note that Scholars are starting to show signs of being tired. Quite a few took a nap on the traffic-slowed return from Everett to Boeing Field. We ended our work on Tuesday with a Lego Mindstorm Rover development project. I was interested to see that almost every student was engaged in that project in task, with the usual type-A’s driving key tasks and the other other scholars taking supporting roles. The hands-on power of these projects cannot be underestimated. Students had to reason about gear reductions, and power limitations of small motors, of the flex and unexpected behaviors of lego structures, and how to program and test robot code. I can’t help but think that this type of work can only hone student’s intuition and experience which can enlighten their classroom learning. We need to more robotics, more maker-faires, more hands on if we expect future STEM professionals to be able to innovate and create. The time-pressure frustrated some, and invigorated others, the team still lacked some integration of efforts, but I think even that aspect of team work is best learned and honed through more of these activities. I am eager to do more hands-on, project-based, and team-oriented activities in my class room, because like the students, I will only get better with practice.

WAS Day 2

Washington Aerospace Scholars Day 2, Monday July 15, 2013

One other student and I found ourselves first down to breakfast at 6:10am. Breakfast is a buffet. I asked a couple of students what they liked most about the simulation from Tuesday. Both said that the tasks in themselves weren’t difficult, but that they felt the pressure not to let down the team, or their mission partners. That’s good motivation to harness for the classroom, but what is the team in a school environment? Scholars here have the benefit of being relatively unknown to each other and thus perhaps not willing to let the others see weakness or lack of motivation or (gasp) ignorance. Compare that with a classroom of students that are probably well-acquainted with each other, and who, instead of rising to an occasion, might tend to sabotage a similar simulation or do less than their best work.

My team’s main focus on this day was to select some key roles for 2-3 scholars to play on the team for the rest of the week. Scholars had submitted résumés to me and I had forwarded to our mentor (a Boeing Engineer). It was the mentor’s responsibility to pick the scholars for these team roles via interviews with scholars that had expressed interest in those roles. I’ll note here that group dynamics had started in full on this day. The students who normally assume leadership roles and postures in the group had done so, the students who might generally be characterized as passive in a groups had also slid into those roles. Those are natural consequences of any work environment, and any task that invigorates some and not others. [Later that evening I would confront a couple of those students that seemed disinterested or not engaged that day. 
One scholar said that they were off that day, probably tired.]

After the roles for our team were selected: (following from SR-AF Summer Residency Handbook)

“System Manager: coordinates subsystems; understands all project sub-topics; represents team at briefings.”

“Point of Contact: communicates with HQ and other teams.”

The team organized itself around the work/deliverables that were to be completed that day. Our mentor has given us some nudges in some good directions, and is creating an ethic on the team that “Red Team is Prepared”. I would say esprit de corps is high during the morning work session. “Red Team will help the other teams make good decisions. Red Team will poke holes in other teams’ plans. Etc.”

It is in that spirit that we went into our preparations for the peer presentations. Red Team went first. Although I had done a run-through with the rest of the team, and we were coming up short on time, I did not push the team to really nail content and technical depth. Thus, later in the day, when our score was given, we were fined $20 million for a presentation that was “the shortest and least developed of any presentation [she] had seen” according to HQ. Red Team was thus taken down a notch. It will be interesting to see how the team reacts to the setback, and who leads that charge. I can cheerlead, and I have an idea of who might bring us back. (Hint: our SM is charismatic…)

Over lunch we had an excellent talk from an Aerojet (Redmond) Engineer who has worked on rockets since 1997. Aerojet has provided rocket motors for many NASA missions for the past 30 or so years. The talk was engaging, the questions were relevant to the mission projects which all teams were working on (and especially Red Team’s), and I know I wished we could have heard more. My takeaway for the classroom is that students can sense when they are in the presence of a subject matter expert. How can I get similar people into my classroom with content that is engaging and a delivery that is also interesting. I can do some thinking on that now, during the summer.

After lunch we had some time to ourselves in the Museum of Flight and in particular, Red Team had a turn to tour the new Full Fuselage Trainer, which is a scale mockup of a space shuttle cockpit and cargo bay. [NOTE: 
I am way too tall to be of very much use in that cramped cockpit, interestingly enough.]

During our dinner back in our team briefing room at the Museum of Flight, we had a presentation from a representative from the College Success Foundation, talking in particular about the Washington Opportunity Scholarship. It was interesting to hear some students scoff when they heard that the qualifying gpa was *only* 2.75, and the household income cutoff was 125% of the median household income in Washington which was $142,000. [need to check those figures again…] To be fair these students at WAS might not stay in state (did I hear scoffing at the UW?) and might not need another $1000 their first two years, and $5000 in their last three years in college. In other words they have access to other streams of financial aid, or their parents will cough up some larger percentage of their calculated contributions. But, I was encouraged by the talk for my students that are underrepresented in STEM and Medical fields, and got the presenter’s card and will make sure that I put up posters in my room and hall to make students aware.

Our day ended with the beginning of two of the Engineering Challenges that we will be involved with this week. The first was to design a rocket. The rules of the Challenge are that we need to meet an objective, with limited resources, and with limited time. The first challenge is to launch a rocket, and the second challenge is to protect an egg during a drop from some height onto some smooth or “interesting” terrain. I was not really surprised that only a few students out of the 10 on Red Team had had experience in related tasks in their schooling or hobby pursuits. I tried to interject a bit of my understanding on the tasks, but mostly I questioned certain design decisions, and tried to make sure everyone was at the table. [There are, in all, probably four scholars out of ten that get a little overwhelmed in these group activities and show their withdrawal from the task through not saying anything or even sitting away from the table, while the others stand at the table
and sketch or demonstrate with their hands what their ideas are.] I should probably say something about this today urging students to try a different role than what they naturally choose—goes for both the talkative and the taciturn, and to remind them that we are a team and need everyone’s expertise, and warn them that the engineers that don’t speak up when they know a decision is being made that is bad are tantamount to those engineers that let shuttles fly with brittle O-rings, or attempt to land with damaged heat tiles. That’s coming down a little hard, but that, as well, is a stretch for me and what my role might be.

Our last Engineering Challenge of the night was designing the lander (egg drop) from a cup, a plastic bag, and some cushioning material. It is interesting to take a simple “dissipate some kinetic energy” problem from physics and hear how students imagine that this is best done. None would argue that a parachute creates a significant amount of drag and thus dissipates a majority of the energy an egg must survive in a free fall. But how to bring the rest of the problem home. I think in a future science class I could have a lot of good discussion about hypotheses that students might make about the energy dissipation properties of various materials, and testing those hypotheses before we commit to a design. I’m fine with the time pressure that we are under here as a simulation of the engineering and in particular space engineering environment, but I’m thinking a more methodical approach would help students of various abilities.

The final two peer presentations of the day were by other teams, and it was the announcing of their scores that brought about Red Teams funk. But we can own our past presentations and make sure that our next ones are better. [Excuses:  It is hard for a team to go first. 
It is hard for a team without an assistant mentor and with a new SR-AF to make a solid performance if they go first.]

Back at the hotel another SR-AF and I took some 17 students to Taco Bell (was closed at 10pm!) so we went to Jack-In-The-Box. The students were well-behaved and enjoyed a chance to satisfy their munchies. I was in bed by midnight, and am dragging a little this morning when I was up at 5:30am, and have typed this from 6:15am to 7:05am.

WAS Day 1

Washington Aerospace Scholars, Sunday July 14

Yay! Red Team won the arrival contest (everything is competition this week) by being the first group to have all of their students arrive at the hotel.

We travelled to the Museum of Flight (MoF) for an orientation and then moon landing simulation (Challenger Learning Center, CLC), and tour of the MoF.

The students totally got into the simulation. They were engaged in their tasks (broken into teams like Com, NAV, Life support, Probe, medical, and Isolation) and they were engaged in the interactions.

Here’s how the simulation was set up. Red team and gray team worked together. For the first hour gray was mission control and red team was in the space ship (destination moon base). For the second hour red team was mission control and gray team was space ship.

Each student sits at a computer and performs tasks relevant to their role on the mission. On the Space ship scholars are doing robotics, or probe testing, or managing life support systems, very hands on stuff. At mission control students are working on worksheets related to tasks and interacting with space ship counterparts.

Periodically, the simulation is interrupted by emergency scenarios that a team has to deal with. We had an oxygen problem, a power issue and a meteoroid strike. The emergencies add some urgency to the activities and overcoming them is cause for some celebration.

Most telling was the oxygen problem where the life support team is working quickly (frantically?) and the rest if the teams are to to "continue with your regular activities". Good teams can probably handle that…bad teams probably unravel since our fate is in a small group’s hands.

One student I talked to felt like the mission control side if the simulation was less exciting than the space ship side. I took a look at the mission control worksheets and am thinking about ways you could use a team-based simulation in science/math class.

One aspect if the simulation that seemed essential was the idea of asynchronous communication. Each scholar’s counterpart in mission control or the space ship was communicating via email and audible commands through the Com role. One student felt good when their messages were announced via the com person for all to hear, I felt like it encumbered speed of communication, but will have to think more on what purpose it serves.

Next we toured MoF guided by a docent who was quite knowledgeable. In fact, since our tour guide was from Germany and since we were touring in the world war 2 airplanes section, he was able to add some personal information like "my father was a German infantryman and remembers seeing P-38s fly overhead". In other commentary he stated that "German expenditures on the less than successful v2 rocket program were a significant drain on war effort, had Germany not wasted so much on that one weapon, they might have been able to spend more on other weapons and the course of the war might have been very different"

After the guided tours we had a chance to do our own touring. I got "lost" in the red barn part of the exhibit and wound up being late to our pre-dinner rendezvous. This everyone had to wait on me for dinner.

Over dinner (qdoba) we went over the rules, had a mixing activity (snowballs) and determined the major parameters of the mission. Interestingly, when it comes to length of mission, very few people wanted a 30 day mission or a one-way mission versus a 500 day mission. Students voted on their choice and then shared why. Arguments weren’t very concrete. The same happened for size of mission as most students opted for 5-9 sized team. And here is the interesting thing…every week of scholars has picked the same mission parameters.

After that we wrapped up the evening at MOF took our buses back to the hotel and grabbed our rooms. Curfew check was no problem and I fell right to sleep.

[Book Review] Where the Rubber Meets the Road

I’m reading a book by Richard N. Steinberg entitled An Inquiry Into Science Education, Where the Rubber Meets the Road.

Professor Steinberg took a sabbatical (2007-2008) from the City College of New York to teach high school physics in Harlem.  This book is a reflection on his experiences.

His themes are predictable if you’ve been following current topics in education.

  • teacher preparation
  • student apathy
  • classroom management
  • abysmal math fluency
  • standardized testing
  • teaching is a lot of work!

His more hopeful and helpful themes are around how he has stood for true inquiry in his science classrooms, and some lessons that he taught.  That plus some other references he cites as resources are worth the price of the book.

Steinberg spoke at a conference in Washington DC in May for the Robert Noyce Scholarship folks at PhysTEC, since he is also involved at that program at CCNY.  He doesn’t talk about PhysTEC in his book, but I suppose it would be out of context somewhat.

Michael Grinder and ENVoY

Dan Dundon introduced me to Michael Grinder this past Friday.  His web page has a video about “Six Wrong Ways to Make the Right First Impression (paper, PDF)”. 

Amazon lists some books by Grinder (as author or co-author).

Product DetailsProduct DetailsProduct Details


Product Details

SPU Library (or affiliates – WorldCat) has a few more in addition to the above.





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