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Education as Pollock painting

I found this quote on a TeachThought website. It captures the spontaneity, engagement, and creativity of extraordinary education.

Several years ago I attended the closing banquet of our state science teacher conference and overheard two teachers comparing notes in a friendly competition. They had apparently gone through the same teacher development program together. One bragged that 86% of his students had passed the state science standards test at the end of the year. The other claimed that his students had a 93% pass rate, with the implication that having more students pass the test meant that he was the better teacher.

They were both new teachers and I can forgive them their misunderstanding. I felt like jumping into the conversation to remind them that having most of their students pass the standards aligned test only proved that they were standard teachers, when what our children deserve is extraordinary teachers. Unfortunately, there is no state test for extraordinary education.

school nurse

Is our public education system ailing and in need of reform? Yes, in that it insists on treating each child like a cookie-cutter clone using a one-size-fits-all set of standards.

Would any of us recognize extraordinary education if we saw it? Can we even agree on the characteristics of extraordinary education? For my own definition, I say that students must be deeply engaged in the learning process, with memorable learning opportunities that invite active participation and critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, and communication. In the end, education should have a lasting impact on their lives. And it should be fun, meaningful, and inherently interesting for them!

I learned during my third year of teaching that Project-Based Learning (PBL) can be a powerful route to extraordinary education. I’m not trying to say that I am an extraordinary educator, but I have tried with some success to bring meaningful opportunities to my students. To do this, I have had to look at my course standards in a different way.

Ed guidelines

There is a great need to change how we do education, but the forces that resist changes are the teachers and administrators and communities that need them the most. The bureaucracy of our school system is the very thing that holds us back. As one individual teacher, I have to accept that I may not be able to change everything, but I can at least change the way I do things.

The push for standards in education is simple to understand. We don’t want students with gaps in their understanding of the world, nor do we want teachers who are incapable of bridging those gaps. Society needs well-educated people in order for them to make informed decisions. Educational standards were developed to achieve a minimum level of essential literacy and knowledge across all students.

This brings up a deeper question: what constitutes essential knowledge? As one of my college professors put it, is there any knowledge (or skills) that a person must have? Every subject expert has a list of what he or she considers to be the essential concepts of the subject, and the list tends to multiply in any committee put together to consider new educational standards. Heaven forbid that even one math student would not understand the quadratic equation. The world might very well collapse if that happened! So we have to create a standard to address that concern, even if only a minority of teachers hold this opinion.

As a result of this drive toward comprehensiveness, all states have far too many educational standards than are truly necessary for each discipline. In chemistry, is it critically important for students to understand Le Chatelier’s Principle of Reaction Equilibrium? You’ll find it in all the state standards. But is this really necessary for what the student and society need? If taught well, it might help them understand some aspects of everyday chemistry, such as why the Haber process works to produce ammonia or why shaking a warm soda bottle causes the carbon dioxide to spray out. But can they become productive citizens without knowing this? Probably. Why force them to learn what they can easily live without? This has bothered me for years.

do what I say

All the shareholders in the education system (parents, children, teachers, administrators, state officials, communities) point the fingers of blame at the others and expect them to be innovative, but are unwilling to change their own viewpoint of what education should be.

What I finally recognized is that standards are meant as a guide to the lowest acceptable level of understanding in a class, not as the final target. Anyone who teaches to the standards alone (especially to the end of year test) will succeed in creating a standard class, an average class, but not an extraordinary one. If we want all of our students to graduate as identical cookie-cutter clones of some “standard” citizen, then standards-based education and the factory model of education will suffice. But if I want students who are strong individuals, creative problem solvers, and innovators, I must go beyond the standards and teach for excellence and quality, not mediocrity. The standards are supposed to be a means to that end, not an end in themselves.

Deeper into Theory

Many of our vaunted education theories support this reductionist view of a subject. For example, Bloom’s Taxonomy is widely used and quoted in educational circles. It poses that there is a hierarchy of understanding and learning; that remembering facts and content details comes first as the foundation of all learning and then leads to understanding, then to application, then analysis, then evaluation, and finally to creativity. The implication is that we need to move our educational activities toward creativity and higher-order thinking skills. The problem with this pedagogical model is that too many teachers never get to the higher-order levels; they get stuck on remembering and regurgitating facts with little real understanding and even less application, analysis, evaluation, or creativity.

Flipping Bloom

Bloom’s Taxonomy, often quoted but poorly understood. Instead of starting at the lowest level (remembering facts) and working our way up, we should start with creativity and work down to facts. Think of this pyramid as flipped upside down, or of creativity being the ground level but the other levels being roots underneath, reaching down to the facts. Students will learn the facts they need if they start with the requirement to create.

So many educational theorists are beginning to propose that Bloom’s Taxonomy should be stood on its head. Creativity should come first, not last. As students create, they can be taught to evaluate the effectiveness and even the aesthetics of their work (more on this in my next post). To do this, they will need to learn to analyze their work in the same way that engineers analyze the effectiveness of their prototypes and models. To analyze the prototype, they have to build it first, which involves the application and understanding of scientific theory. To gain that understanding, students will have to look up and remember the scientific facts and theories involved. In other words, teaching creativity first and insisting on quality work provides the impetus and motivation for students to find the information they need, understand and apply that information well enough to build prototypes, then analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of that prototype against specifications. Students will look up what they need to know because it is necessary for them to solve the problems that occur as they create, build, test, and analyze prototypes. We call this the engineering or design process.

This is where Project-Based Learning (PBL) comes in. Only through extended projects can students have the time, independence, and creativity to deeply explore and understand a subject by following their own curiosity. Projects are the only way to ensure that the intent for having standards is met and that we reach extraordinary education. This happens through what I call “standards overreach.”

Shorten the pole vault

It doesn’t make sense to raise standards while lowering the resources available to schools to reach those standards. There’s nothing quite like an unfunded mandate.

Standards Overreach:

Let me start with an example. During the first week in my first year biology classes, I introduced the concept of the characteristics of life and the abiotic factors necessary to sustain it. This is a common biology standard in most states. Now if I were a standards-obsessed teacher, I would teach to this point as my target for student understanding. I might put up a list of terms and have students write down definitions in the hope that they will understand them. This is a low-level activity without much student mental engagement. They’ll forget these definitions as soon as the test is over, if they retain them even that long. I might write the terms on a worksheet and have them look up definitions. Slightly better but still boring for everyone concerned, although it does meet the standard. I could show them a video about it and have them take notes. A bit better but still teacher-centered and passive for students. I could have students brainstorm the characteristics of life, then ask them to provide examples, or do a lab activity, etc. Getting better but still not entirely effective.

What all of these activities have in common is that they are targeted specifically to this one standard alone, and on the end of unit test, only some of the students will show understanding (or at least regurgitation). I have only partially succeeded.

Exoplanets

What kind of life forms could exist on an exoplanet or exomoon, such as shown here? As students ask and answer such questions, they come to understand the characteristics of life and the abiotic factors that support it.

Or I could do this in a completely different way through a student-centered, engaging project. I could have them go beyond the standard (overreach it) knowing that at minimum they will understand the standard and possibly much more. So I use my passion for astrobiology and experience conducting field research studies of extremophiles in the Mojave Desert to create a project for my students. We’ll collect halophilic bacteria from the Great Salt Lake and let them grow in a Winogradsky column then analyze the pink floaters under a microscope. We’ll extend this to research on other extremophiles and use real examples of how they are adapted to their environments, with students developing posters or presentations or other summary products of their choice. Do all forms of life on Earth need oxygen, or even air? No – there are lithoautotrophs that live in rocks and get carbon dioxide from minerals, not air. Does all life require light and plants at the bottom of the food chain? No. Look at the chemosynthetic bacteria that are at the bottom of the food chain near deep ocean hydrothermal vents.

Square test in round head

How can one test measure the quality or extent of knowledge for every student, even if the tests are adaptive? How can a single measure determine the effectiveness of every teacher?

Then they’ll look at potentially habitable exoplanets (and learn a bit of astronomy and physics on the way) and choose an actual planet, then develop a drawing or clay model of an alien life form they envision, complete with descriptions of how it is able to survive in that environment, the abiotic factors that exist there, and the ecosystem it is part of. How does it eat or get energy? How does it move around, reproduce, adapt to changes, grow and develop, etc.? How would we detect it and know that it is alive?

As a capstone event or product, they produce posters or other products on their research into and present them at a science showcase night, just as if they were professional scientists at a conference. At the end of the evening we can watch and analyze the realism of the movie “The Andromeda Strain.” In the process of thinking all of this through, the students will deeply understand the characteristics and factors necessary for life. They will all easily meet the standard because we shot way beyond the standard.

Relax and take the test

With high stakes testing supposedly measuring the effectiveness of teachers and schools based on how students take the test, its no wonder teachers are teaching to the test. Their jobs are on the line. Yeah. No pressure . . .

You will argue that this type of project will take days to complete, when you can cover that standard in just one day. Maybe so, but we haven’t just covered that one standard. Without my having to lecture them, my students have learned about evolution and classification, microbiology and using a microscope, physics and astronomy, and even developed artistic skills. They have learned about scientific communication, which is part of one dimension of the Next Generation Science Standards. We have therefore touched on about ten other standards from multiple disciplines in the five days of this project. If I tried to teach each one of those standards one at a time, it would take far longer than our project did. My students’ understanding will be deeper and more permanent than any lower-level unengaging assignments can achieve.

The test to test us for the test

No Child Left Untested . . . How can teachers possibly meet education standards when they have to spend all of their teaching time administrating tests to measure how well they are meeting education standards?

Meeting Standards through PBL:

Here is another example that we completed just two weeks ago. We had moved into our units on human anatomy in my biology classes. I wanted students to learn the function of muscles and bones and how they provide support and movement. Now the “standard” way of doing this would be to provide diagrams of the skeleton and muscles and have students label all the names of all the part. Tibia. Fibula. Patella. Femur. Pelvis. Clavicle. Sternum. Latisimus Dorsi, Deltoid, etc, etc, ad nauseum. And many teachers leave it at that, with no understanding of how it all works together. Some will go on to teach (or more likely have the students read in the textbook) how flexor and extensor muscles must be paired, how they are anchored to the fixed bone with tendons reaching across the joint to the mobile bone. But only a few teachers will have students apply this knowledge, or design experiments to collect data that can be analyzed, or have students think critically to evaluate the quality of their knowledge, or do something creative with it.

So I turned the process on its head. I did draw a diagram of the elbow joint on my whiteboard as an example, showing and labeling the parts of everything. I explained how the bicep and tricep work in tandem to flex and extend the joint, and how ligaments, cartilage, and all the other parts hold it all together and allow it to move. That was all I did, and I didn’t really need to do that. It was just a quick 15-minute introduction. Then I gave them a challenge: using the materials I provided, they had to build a mechanical arm that would duplicate the movement of the elbow joint. As teams, they would need to use my diagram as a guide, look up whatever other information they needed, then design and build their own arm. It had to meet certain specifications: It had to have the same range of motion as a regular arm, not bending too far or extending too far (it could not be double-jointed). It had to have a way of both flexing and extending the forearm. And that was it.

I provided lots of cardboard, wooden skewers, beads, string, hot glue guns and glue sticks, etc. I divided the students into three-person teams, and required them to show me a sketch of their plan before they were allowed to collect materials. Then they set to work. In every case, their first attempts didn’t work very well. Some of the students wanted to quit at that point, saying that this task was “impossible,” but I provided encouragement and hinted that they should look more closely at how the actual human arm does this; obviously, it isn’t impossible if our arms can do this. They tore parts off their models, reglued, tried again, and eventually all the teams succeeded. They were all different, but all mimicked the construction of the human arm in important ways.

Round head in square hole

Standards imply that every student is the same, and that one size fits all in education.

With that project done, the same teams went on to create working models of the human hand. These models had to be able to create several gestures of my choice to show control of individual fingers, be able to pick up and move small objects to show dexterity, and be able to grasp and lift a cup full of water (added slowly) to demonstrate strength. This was a much harder task, and the same students again tried to give up. They wanted me to provide step-by-step instructions, but I refused. I repeated that there were no right answers, no one right way to do this. Some had to redesign from scratch, which was frustrating, but they overcame this frustration and eventually all succeeded.

It took seven class periods to accomplish these two projects. I could have easily taught the basic concepts about the arm and hand in a day using traditional activities, and they might have remembered the details long enough to pass the unit test (with some repetition and review). This would have sufficed for the requirements of the state standards. But it doesn’t meet my own standards, which are much higher. And it meets those other two pesky dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards: Scientific and Engineering Practices (engineering design process) and Cross-Cutting Concepts (modeling). We’ll look at teaching through building models in a future post.

So how did they do upon assessment? On the unit test, the students who completed these models showed a thorough understanding of how the arm and the hand work; not just the parts, but how they are shaped, how they operate and fit together, and even the importance of having opposable thumbs. Those teams that didn’t have effective thumbs had great difficulty lifting their cup of water.

All students received 100% on the essay questions related to these projects and all passed the test. They could repeat the facts, and they thoroughly understood the concepts. They will remember their learning far longer than traditional methods because they have applied their knowledge. They have analyzed problems that occurred with their models and evaluated their effectiveness against the specifications. They have revised, fixed, redesigned, and in short, they have created. They fulfilled all of the requirements for the state and the three dimensions of the NGSS, as well as all of Bloom’s levels. In addition, they learned resilience, teamwork, collaboration, and communication skills. Not all of the teams got along perfectly, and I had to work with them on how to communicate effectively to listen to all ideas and make a solid group decision instead of one person trying to run the show. Was it worth the extra time? Absolutely!

Tower of Education Babel

There are a lot of education buzzwords out there, a veritable Tower of Educational Babel that obscures instead of clarifying the problems of education and the need for reform.

Conclusions:

When administrators and parents and everyone else gets bent out of shape about standards and you feel a pressure to “teach to the test,” just remember that state education standards are the minimum expectation, and we should hope that you are a better teacher than that. Yes, you must meet the standards. You can get fired if you don’t. But state standards are not the end we are after, only one means to the better end of extraordinary education. So overreach the expectations forced upon you by your state, principle, or community and dare to teach to a higher standard. Mentor your students to deeper understanding, higher engagement, and further creativity. Dare to be extraordinary!

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Starting out at a new school, I decided it was time to re-examine my personal philosophy of teaching and education.

Over the last several years, as I have been reporting my experiences in these blogs, I have paid attention to how effective I am as a teacher and what sorts of activities and lessons seem to resonate with students and provide memorable learning opportunities for them. From this I have developed my own model of education, which I have shared at conferences and workshop sessions. I will be starting a Doctorate of Education (EdD) program this fall at the University of Northern Colorado, specializing in Innovation and Education Reform. This will be a means for backing my theories up with empirical research, not just the anecdotal evidence I have now. I already know what I want to do for my doctoral thesis.

This is my revised model so far, with examples from my teaching experiences:

Creative Classroom Diagram v3-s

This is my revised model of education, what could also be called the Levels of Engagement model. The purpose of education, in my experience, is to move students from ignorance (no knowledge of a subject) through passive learning (sitting and watching or listening) to active learning (hands-on, experiential) and beyond to creative learning (students as explorers, teachers, and innovators). Students move from being consumers of educational content to interacting with content to creating new educational content or new science, engineering, art, math, or technology. The students become makers, designers, programmers, engineers, scientists, artists, and problem solvers.

I call this the Creative Classroom model, as the goal is to move students from Ignorance (lack of knowledge or experience with a subject) through the stages of being a Passive Learner (sitting and listening to the teacher or a video and consuming content) through being an Active Learner (students interacting with content through cookbook style labs) to becoming a Creative Learner (students creating new content as innovators: teachers, makers, programmers, designers, engineers, and scientists). Let’s look at these levels in more detail. It could also be titled the Levels of Engagement model, as moving to the right in my model signifies deeper student engagement with their learning.

Level 0: Ignorance

Ignorance is the state of not having basic knowledge of a subject. This isn’t a bad thing, as we all start out in this state, as long as we recognize our ignorance and do something about it. What our society needs are more creative and innovative people, not people who are passive or even willfully ignorant.

Ignorance is not bliss. What a person doesn’t know may indeed hurt him or her – if, for example, you don’t know that mixing bleach with ammonia will produce chlorine gas, you could wind up with severe respiratory problems. A basic literacy for science and engineering concepts is necessary for any informed citizen, since we live in a technological age with problems that need solving and can only be solved through science and technology.

If you do not understand science and technology, you can be controlled by those who do. How many people actually understand the technology behind the cell phones they use every day? They leave themselves vulnerable to control by the telecom companies that do understand and control this technology. If you don’t understand the importance of Internet privacy and share personal information on a website or Facebook page, you leave yourself vulnerable to people or corporations that can track your web searches or even stalk you online (or worse). I am fairly ignorant of the basic techniques for repairing my car. This leaves me vulnerable to paying the high prices (and the possible poor service) of a local mechanic, when I could save lots of money and ensure quality if I only knew how to do it myself.

As teachers our first responsibility is to lead students away from a state of ignorance. This seems simple enough, but anyone who teachers teenagers (and even some so-called adults) will know that some of them insist on remaining willfully ignorant, usually because they mistakenly think that they already know everything they need to know, which is never true of anyone. As the Tao Te Ching says: “To know what you know, and what you do not know, is the foundation of true wisdom.” So the first step to becoming a creative learner is to delineate, define, and accept our areas of ignorance.

Most Likely to Succeed quote

A quote from the introduction of “Most Likely to Succeed” by Toni Wagner and Ted Dintersmith. How long will it take before education systems realize that the old factory model of education is no longer working?

Level 1: Passive Learning

When people start learning a subject they are usually not sufficiently self-motivated to learn it on their own – but we hope they will reach that point eventually. Most inexperienced learners are passive. They wait for their teachers to lead the lesson, sitting in their seats listening to lectures or watching a movie or otherwise absorbing and consuming educational content. The focus in such classes is to complete individual assignments that usually involve only lower order thinking skills such as recall and identification. This is the level described in the quote above from Most Likely to Succeed by Toni Wagner and Ted Dintersmith.

At this level, teachers emphasize mastering the facts and basic concepts of a subject. Students are consumers of educational content, but do not interact with it or create new content. Common classroom activities include listening to lectures and taking notes or answering basic questions, watching a video or demonstration, completing worksheets, or reading a text. Student motivation is usually external, based on the desires of parents or teachers and the fear of negative consequences (poor grades, etc.).

Education at this level is all about efficiency but isn’t very effective, since less than 10% of what teachers share in lectures is retained by students beyond the next test. Evaluation is based on standards, not skills. There is always a need for students to learn facts and concepts, but it is better to provide engaging projects where the students will find out the facts on their own as a natural part of completing the project.

Level 2: Active Learning

At this phase, students start developing internal motivation as they engage and interact with content. Students are beginning to explore, but usually through activities that are fairly structured although more student centered than before. These activities are hands-on; students are doing and acting, not sitting and listening.

Common classroom activities would be “cook-book” style labs, with step-by-step instructions and pre-determined outcomes. Students begin to learn observation and inquiry skills, with some data collection in a controlled environment along with data analysis. Teachers still determine if the student has the “right” answer. They start to practice the 21st Century skills of collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. Unfortunately, most science classes stop at this level without moving beyond hands-on to the deepest level.

reasons for using inquiry

Inquiry-based learning shares many of the features of project or problem-based learning, in that it is student centered and empowers student voice and choice, allows a high level of engagement and meaningfulness as students take responsibility and ownership for their learning, and teaches resilience, grit, and perseverance.

Level 3: Creative and Innovative Learning

If the purpose of STEAM education is to teach students how to become scientists, technology experts, engineers, artists, and mathematicians then they must learn the final stages of inquiry: to ask and answer questions, to solve problems, or to design products. The purpose of science is to answer questions whereas engineering has the goal of solving problems through designing and testing prototypes. Both are creative endeavors as the result of learning is something new for society – new knowledge or new products.

In the Creative Classroom, the environment is completely open, without predigested data or predetermined conclusions. Students work on projects where they research a question important to them, develop a methodology, decide how to control variables, make observations, determine methods of analysis, and draw and communicate conclusions. At this level, students become innovators or inventors. They synthesize knowledge and apply it to themselves and teach others through writing blog posts, creating posters or infographics, presenting lessons and demonstrations, and filming and editing videos or other educational media. They become makers and programmers, building products of their own design. The students are creating and contributing to society by making new content, knowledge, and solutions.

Learning at this level is never forgotten but is difficult to evaluate with a multiple-choice test, as the focus is on skill mastery and competency instead of easily regurgitated facts. Overall, this deepest (and most fulfilling, motivational, and engaging) level is entirely student centered and driven, with instructors as mentors. Ultimately, once a student has practiced learning at this level, the teacher is no longer necessary; the students will continue to learn on their own, because they are now entirely internally motivated. These are the people that society will always need.

How This Impacts My Teaching:

As an educator, my goal is to move students toward Level 3 activities and projects. Where I succeed, the projects my students work on are meaningful to them, demand professional excellence, use authentic data, involve real-world applications, are open-ended, and are student-driven. The students are required to create, make, program, build, test, question, teach, and design. They are innovators and engineers; they are creative students.

To give some examples from previous blog posts on my two sites:

Rachmaninoff 430-630-1000-s

Representative color image of the Rachmaninoff Basin area of Mercury, created by my students using narrow band image data from the MESSENGER space probe at 430, 630, and 1000 nm. We stretched the color saturation and image contrast so that we could see differences between volcanic (yellow-orange) and impact (blue-violet) features.

My chemistry and STEAM students created an inquiry lab to study the variables involved in dyeing cloth, including the history, ancient processes, types of cloth, mordants (binders), types of dyes, and other factors. We also explored tie dyeing, ice dyeing, and batik and developed a collection of dyed swatches that we will turn into a school quilt. We also experimented with dyeing yarn with cochineal, indigo, rabbit brush, sandalwood, logwood, etc. and my wife crocheted a sweater from it.

2. My chemistry and STEAM students did a similar inquiry lab to test the variables involved in making iron-gall ink using modern equivalents. We studied the history and artistry of this type of ink (used by Sir Isaac Newton, Leonardo DaVinci, and many more) and tried to determine the ideal formula for making the blackest possible ink. We also created our own watercolor and ink pigments such as Prussian blue, etc. We used the inks/watercolors to make drawings and paintings of the history of chemistry.

3. My astronomy students used accurate data to build a 3D model of the nearby stars out to 13 light years. This lesson was featured in an article in The Science Teacher magazine, including a video of me describing the process.

4. My astronomy students created a video for the MIT BLOSSOMS project showing a lesson plan on how to measure the distance to nearby stars using trigonometric parallax. It is on the BLOSSOMS website and has been translated into Malay, Chinese, and other languages.

5. My earth science students learned how to use Mars MOLA 3D altitude data to create and print out 3D terrains of Mars.

6. My chemistry students created a 12-minute documentary (chocumentary?) on the history and process of making chocolate.

7. My 6th grade Creative Computing class built and animated a 3D model of the SOFIA aircraft prior to my flying on her as an Airborne Astronomy Ambassador.

Kasei_Valles-Mars-2

A 3D render of the Kasei Valles area of Mars, created by students as part of the Mars Exploration Student Data Team project. They learned how to download Mars MOLA data from the NASA PDS website and convert it into 3D models and animations, then created an interactive program on Mars Exploration which they presented at a student symposium at Arizona State University.

8. My science research class collected soil samples from the mining town of Eureka, Utah to see if a Superfund project had truly cleaned up the lead contamination in the soil.

9. My chemistry and media design students toured Novatek in south Provo, Utah and learned about the history and current process for making synthetic diamond drill bits. Another group videotaped a tour of a bronze casting foundry, while others took tours of a glass blowing workshop, a beryllium refinery, and a cement plant.

10. My astronomy students used infrared data from the WISE and Spitzer missions to determine if certain K-giant stars may be consuming their own planets. This was done as part of the NITARP program. They developed a poster of their findings and presented it at the American Astronomical Society conference in 2015 in Seattle.

11. My biology students build working models of the circulatory system, the lungs, the arm, and create stop motion animations of mitosis and meiosis. As I write this, they are learning the engineering design cycle by acting as biomechanical engineers to design and build artificial hands that must have fingers that move independently, an opposable thumb, can pick up small objects, make hand gestures, and grasp and pick up cups with varying amounts of water in them.

12. My computer science students, in order to learn the logic of game design, had to invent their own board games and build a prototype game board and pieces, write up the rules, and have the other teams play the game and make suggestions, then they made revisions. This was an application of the engineering design cycle.

13. My STEAM students designed and built a model of a future Mars colony using repurposed materials (junk), including space port, communications systems, agriculture and air recycling, power production, manufacturing, transportation, and living quarters. They presented this and other Mars related projects at the NASA Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston.

These are just a small sampling of all the projects my students have done over the years. I have reported at greater length in this blog about these and other projects. My intent has always been to move students away from passive learning to active learning to inquiry/innovation. They often create models, build prototypes, collect data, or design a product and it is always open ended and student centered; even if I choose the topic of the project, they have a great deal of freedom to determine their approach and direction. There is never one right answer or a set “cookbook” series of steps, nor a focus on memorizing facts. They learn the facts they need as a natural consequence of learning about their project topics; by completing the project, they automatically demonstrate the required knowledge.

Mars Exploration main interface-s

My students designed, animated, and programmed this interface for their Mars Exploration project, then presented it at a student symposium at Arizona State University as part of the Mars Exploration Student Data Team program. They build 3D models and animations of Mars probes, such as the one of the MER rovers shown. In this interface, the Mars globe spins, and as the main buttons are rolled over, side menus slide out and space probes rotate in the window.

Some groups require considerable training and experience to get to this level of self-motivation and innovation, and some team building, communication, and creativity training may be required. Other groups move along more rapidly and have the motivation to jump right in. This means that managing such projects as a teacher can be challenging because every team is different. I find myself moving from being a teacher at the center of the classroom (a sage on a stage) where all students move along in a lock-step fashion to becoming a mentor or facilitator of learning (a guide on the side) as students move toward higher levels of engagement at their own pace and in their own way.

As classroom activities become more student-centered, I find it natural to tie in the Next Generation Science Standards. If I do an inquiry lab to test the variables that affect dyeing cloth, the answer is not known before nor the methodology. Students have to work out the scientific method or steps needed by asking the right questions and determining how to find the answers, or to design, build, and test a prototype product. Through this method they learn the science and engineering processes that are one dimension of the 3D standards.

Crosscutting concepts can also be explored more effectively through this method. Inquiry leads to observations, which should show patterns, processes, models, scale, proportion, and other such concepts, which are the second dimension of 3D science education.

This leaves the third dimension, which is to teach subject Core Concepts. This is where most of the misguided opposition to Project Based Learning comes from. Teachers feel that projects somehow take time away from “covering” all the standards. But if we want deep learning of the core concepts of a subject, we can’t expect students to learn them by using surface level teaching techniques that emphasize facts without going any deeper. If I do it right, I can involve many standards at once in the same project and not only meet but exceed the standards in all cases. I call this “standards overreach” and I will talk about this in more detail in my next post.

Element posters and virus models

Projects don’t have to be a elaborate and complex as the Mars project shown above. Here, my New HAven students have created models of viruses and mini-posters of chemical elements. The green plastic bottle to the left is a model of a human lung.

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New Haven signs

New Haven Residential Treatment Center, where I now teach. It is located in a rural area near the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon. It is surrounded by alfalfa fields and deer frequently walk through the school in the evenings.

With my performances in the musical over (see my previous post) and Christmas past, I redoubled my efforts to find another teaching job. By the end of 2017 I had about seven different interviews, some over the phone, a few in person. I thought they all went well, but not all of the jobs were equally attractive. Some would require my moving away from Utah, which I am reluctant to do. I like living here, with the great combination of desert and mountains, incredible geology and scenery (there are five national parks in Utah and two others just outside), and a wonderful mix of biomes, ecosystems, and weather. A science teacher’s dream-come-true! So I am loath to leave.

One interview was with Pearson Publishing to promote their new science curriculum, which would require frequent travel but allow me to continue living here. But I’m not much of a book salesman, having had a negative experience while in college selling books door to door in Phoenix during the summer. I wouldn’t want to do that again unless at the uttermost need. I had some teaching interviews with KIPP schools and elsewhere, but again there are none in Utah and it would require moving. Another job was for a new tutorial program, but it was only part time (I need full time) and I’m also reluctant to start a new job with a new school knowing how much is promised that never comes to fruition.

New Haven schoolhouse

The school building at New Haven RTC. I teach in the science room, which is the new addition right behind the pine tree next to the pond.

I looked for a variety of categories on every job aggregating website I could find, from Teachers to Teachers to Indeed and beyond. I looked for teaching jobs, curriculum development jobs, education consulting jobs, media design jobs, tutoring jobs, even substitute teaching jobs. These last two I didn’t pursue yet since I wasn’t quite that desperate, but I decided if I didn’t get an offer by the end of January I would start applying for these jobs, too.

One position I found was for a science teacher at a residential treatment center in Spanish Fork, about 20 miles south of where I live. I have taught at an RTC before and am familiar with how they work. Students with emotional and behavioral problems are sent to these centers (by parents, the courts, and school districts) as a last resort to provide them with in-house therapy while helping them catch up on school credits (which they are often behind on). Utah has a cottage industry of RTCs because the structure of our laws allows for lock-down school facilities as long as they have fire-safe zones separated by firewalls. I was called in for an interview and was impressed by what they are doing and felt the interview went very well. It happened on Dec. 16, so I wasn’t expecting to hear back immediately because of Christmas break. But once January began I hoped to hear back one way or another.

I followed all the requirements of Unemployment to apply to at least four employers per week (I actually did far more than that). I put myself on a daily time card to track the hours I spent, hoping that I could be productive in everything I did. I worked harder than on a normal job, averaging over 55 hours per week. But not much was happening. I was about to start subbing and finding whatever jobs I could, but knew if I did so it would take time away from looking for better jobs. It’s a kind of Catch-22.

BBIG Project Diagram-s

A schematic diagram of how a project would be organized and managed using the BBIG Idea structure. The entire organization from students on up will decide on the major projects for each year, and the Project Directors and Advanced Innovators will divide the project into separate pieces, such as videos, 3D models, games, etc. Innovator teams work with Master Educators to divide the project further into pieces that individual students organized into Apprentice Teams complete, based on continual formative assessments.

A BBIG Idea:

I continued to develop a business plan for creating an organization that would take Media Design and STEM professionals into schools as independent contractors, similar to some school to work programs. My idea is called the Black Box Innovation Group, or BBIG. It will create a non-profit that sends professionals into schools to work with their media design students to create non-profit educational products, starting with practical projects such as promoting Utah tourism through creating county videos. Each year I would add more schools, then build an organized training program, with graduated students (masters) working for BBIG to go back into schools to train apprentices (middle school students) and journeymen (high school students).

Competency based school challenges

My BBIG Idea will be a competency-based school program directed by outside professionals and Master Teachers (classroom teachers trained by BBIG). This diagram from the 2014 meeting of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools describes the challenges to adopting a competency-based curriculum, although it is a much needed school reform.

Students advance by mastering skills and participating in central journeyman level projects that show high competency. The central themes will be decided on each spring at a BBIG Idea Convention. Anyone in the organization could propose ideas at the annual conventions, and these would be focused on media design but with STEM themes. At first, BBIG would be supported by grants but would eventually fund itself through sales of its products. I worked out all the details, and even set up an appointment with the Small Business Development Center to look it over. The SBDC was very favorable on all but my funding model, as trying to continue an organization on grants alone isn’t very sustainable. I took a Saturday class at the SBDC to learn how to test the feasibility of my idea, and I took a continuing class on Thursday nights for how to create my own business. Although I haven’t moved further on this idea, I intend to pursue it through grants once I build more cache for myself through adding those three magic letters to my name and gaining the backing of a university.

If you want to learn more about the BBIG program, here is a PDF file you can download and view at your leisure:

BBIG presentation-s

Finally: Success

If my job hunting efforts had continued into February, I would have taken the plunge into starting BBIG while beginning to do tutoring and substitute teaching. But my job search efforts finally paid off. In mid January I interviewed with Heritage School, another RTC that is less than two miles from where I live. When I taught at Provo Canyon School 20 years ago, we did some joint training activities and classes with Heritage, so I was familiar with their campus and some of their people. The day after the interview they called me and offered a job. I told them I needed 24 hours to decide. With an offer in hand, I called up New Haven RTC and asked what their decision was. They had a couple of final questions for me based on my references from my former school, which I was able to answer satisfactorily. They offered me a job as well. After three months of no results, I was in the good position of having two offers to choose from.

I also weighed continuing my job search. It was near the start of a new semester and there would be some science jobs available at local school districts. Did I want to go back to crowded classes with over 30 students per class? Working in a district is a stronger position than being at a private school when it comes to applying for awards and grants. Finally, however, after much thought, I decided to accept the offer at New Haven. My feeling for their program was more positive and I felt I could work in their system more effectively.

I would be replacing a teacher who was leaving to become a stay-at-home dad. Over the years, he and his wife had sponsored 14 foster children and she had accepted a great job offer, so he was needed at home. I went in to the school starting a week before the end of the semester to observe and get prepared for the transition at the end of January 2018.

Making gak at NH

Making gak in my classroom at New Haven RTC. Because of the nature of our school and the students’ need for privacy, I cannot show faces or give names. It is nice to be back doing fun projects again, which I’ll describe in later posts.

I have been at New Haven since then, and I am used to the students and system. I feel that I am finally getting back on track creating new materials, blogs, lesson plans, and applications. I am writing blog posts again, creating new lesson plans, and planning ahead for what seems like the first time in a long time. I am innovating and creating again, and beginning to apply for awards and professional development opportunities. One thing I can’t apply for, however, is grants. This is a private for-profit school and almost all grants require the grantee to be a non-profit entity. I am moving forward and have been accepted into an online doctoral program in Educational Studies at the University of Northern Colorado, specializing in Innovation and Education Reform. I will talk about this more in later posts. This may provide further opportunities for grants.

As of today, May 21, 2019, it has been a year and a half since I was laid off at American Academy of Innovation and I don’t miss it. I do miss many of the students there, who were amazing, but I don’t miss the commute or the long hours or the stress that seemed endemic to that school. I have half the commuting time, and I get home now long before I would even leave school there.

I can focus on individual students and their needs. We have weekly treatment team meetings where we go over the therapeutic, educational, and social needs of each student. Think of it as a very detailed IEP that takes place every week. Our structure at school allows teachers to attend those meetings and be a full part of the team. I wish normal schools could do the same, but the intensity of how we do things couldn’t be replicated without quadrupling the amount we now spend on education.

Although I’ve now been here for 16 months, which is longer than I was at AAI, I’m not sure if I’ve yet recovered from the trauma of losing that job, even if it was a lay off due to financial issues. I still feel a need to cover my backside. I applied for over 60 jobs, interviewed for nine, and received two offers. That’s a lot of rejection, and it was hard to take day after day for three months. One thing that helped me was to see the movie The Greatest Showman (my wife insisted –she’s a big fan) and hear the song “This is Me.” It inspired me to write my own personal anthem as a way of thumbing my nose at all the detractors and naysayers I’ve had during my teaching career (and there have been more than a few) and to rise above the continued daily rejections. Here it is, for what it’s worth:

I Will Rise

Personal Anthem of David V. Black

They tell me my efforts are worthless,
I’m too old, obsolete, uninformed.
They say that my skills are now useless,
And ignore all the castles I’ve stormed.

But they’re wrong about me.
I’m afraid they won’t see
All the value I’ll bring to their schools.
Yet I won’t believe them,
As a teacher of STEM
I’ve learned to obey my own rules.

Though I may not be much in their eyes,
You can still count on this: I will rise!

I’m not falling down, I am leaping
Ahead of the pack, not behind.
Their negative thoughts won’t start seeping
To poison my thoughts or my mind.

Oh they won’t get me down,
And I won’t play the clown,
I deserve some respect for my strife.
Through the rest of my years,
I won’t give in to fears,
I’ll have joy throughout all of my life.

No matter how hopeless the prize,
There will be no mistake: I will rise!

I’ve taught classes from Boston to Bali,
Written blogs from the ends of the Earth,
Lead workshops for NASA in Cali,
And now you dare say I’ve no worth?

I’ve worked far too long to accept it
When you say that my best years are gone.
There is still much to see, still more to do
And I won’t quit until I have won!

Oh they’re wrong about me,
And some day they will see,
That I have so much further to go.
They will bow with respect,
Accusations retract,
And upon me their honors bestow.

Through the darkness I’ll reach for the skies,
And no matter the cost: I will rise!

I’m the teacher they thought to despise.
I will never give up: I will rise!

 

OK – so – I’m not exactly a great poet. But it encapsulated my feelings, and helped to keep me going. Despite daily setbacks and let downs, I had to keep going and believe that my efforts would pay off eventually. As an ancient king once said regarding his people’s attempts to escape from slavery:

I trust there remaineth an effectual struggle to be made.
– King Limhi

Or as Shakespeare put it:

Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.
– Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

I had to believe that my attempts weren’t futile and set my fears and self-doubts aside. I kept trying, and it finally did pay off.

Now I can continue this blog and look forward to the rest of my teaching career. With my doctorate program I can finally join empirical research to the theories I’ve developed over the years based on my observations as a teacher. I can finish the books I’m working on and edit them until they are published. I can create a plethora of educational materials and follow up on all the ideas I’ve had. I’m no longer in job limbo. I am in recovery.

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Golden Apple cover-m

My own cover design for the book I am completing for NaNoWriMo this month (Nov. 2018). It is based on the cover page of Atalanta Fugiens by Michael Maier.

Today is Nov. 1, 2018 and it is time to begin another year of NaNoWriMo: the National Novel Writing Month program that encourages writers to complete at least 50,000 words during November. I will be splitting my writing over four major projects. The first is to catch up and maintain these blog posts here at Elements Unearthed and at my other post: www.spacedoutclassroom.com, where I have been writing about activities and lessons in astronomy education. My second project is to write a series of lesson plans on STEAM education projects for chemistry classes, which I will report on and share here as well. My hope is to create a collection of 20-30 lesson plans that incorporate the arts and history and publish them through the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). My third project is to write and illustrate a series of young adult (8-14 year old) fact-based books on exploring the world (and beyond) written from the perspective of fictitious youngsters who experience these adventures. It will be largely based on my own travels. The final project is to complete the first novel in my Trinum Magicum series, which I started for NaNoWriMo last year. This blog will describe that project and other silver linings that came during my job hunt last year.

prague-castle-map

A map of the Hradcany, the castle hill in Prague with St. Vitus’ Cathedral. Most of my novel is based in Prague in 1609 during the time of Emperor Rudolf II.

Upon my return from the Teacher Research Data Conference in Washington, D.C., I was faced again with the challenges of my situation. Just two weeks before, I had been laid off from my teaching position at American Academy of Innovation because of budget problems, and now I had to pick up the pieces and somehow find a new position for myself when the school year was already well underway. My situation seemed pretty cloudy and dreary, but for every cloud there are silver linings. Mine came in the shape of unexpected opportunities to fulfill two of my Bucket List items: to be in a community theater production (more on this in the next post) and to start my long-planned Trinum Magicum book series.

maier_emblem_6-s

A photograph of Emblem 6 of Atalanta Fugiens, written by Michael Maier and illustrated with engravings by Mathias Merian. The book’s central mystery involves this book, which was perhaps one of the first attempts at multimedia, as it contains illustrations, poems, epigrams, and fugues.

For the first few weeks of October, my priority was to get all of my materials, books, filing cabinets, and papers from AAI put away into my house, as they were all stacked up in my carport exposed to the elements. I had to build a bookshelf, clean out rooms in my house and workshop, and do a lot of sorting and packing, but I finally found a spot for everything. Then I took some time to plan out my goals for the coming weeks as I looked for work. I had to make at least four contacts per week to maintain my unemployment benefits, so that was the top priority. I signed up for quite a few job seeking aggregate sites, went for interviews at Workforce Services, filled out a lot of paperwork, and started applying for jobs.

Prague castle

An illustration of what Prague looked like around 1609. The main Hradcany was on a hill with a steep wall in front. St. Vitus’ Cathedral had only been completed to the transept – the nave wasn’t completed until the 20th Century.

One job opening was for an informal science education director at Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City, which I thought was an ideal job for me (and me for them). 35 people applied, and I was one of the five chosen for interviews. The interview went well, but I could tell that I didn’t have enough large-scale grant experience for what they wanted. They hired another person who had worked as an educator at a planetarium before and whom I had actually met before at The Leonardo museum in Salt Lake. It was disappointing on top of all the other disappointments, but at least I came close (although close only counts in hand grenades, atom bombs, and horseshoes).

st-vituss-cathedral-map

St. Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague as it exists today. At the time of my book, the Choir and Altar and Transept with towers were completed but the Nave was not (until 20th Century), so the cathedral had a truncated appearance.

Feeling down on myself for not getting this job that had seemed so right, I walked to a local bookstore to browse articles on job seeking and just to take my mind off my problems for a while. I picked up a copy of Writers Magazine, and it had an article about a program that encourages people to write novels, a kind of community tracking project called NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write at least 50,000 words of a novel in the 30 days of November. It was the fourth week in October when I read this, and I checked out the website and decided to go for it. After all, I finally had the time to complete another item on my Bucket List.

Carbboard model of Prague

A cardboard model of Prague built in the 1820s-1830s by a man named Langwell. You can see that St. Vitus’ Cathedral is truncated and incomplete, and that the Hradcany castle complex overlooked the old city (Mala Stana) and Vltava River.

I had an idea for a novel that had been simmering in my head for eight years, ever since I spent the summer in Philadelphia at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. It would be a time travel adventure into the history of chemistry as the protagonists searched for clues to an ancient mystery involving that remarkable book by Michael Maier called Atalanta Fugiens. I started doing research into Maier and the history of the book, and found that he had written it shortly after leaving the service of the Emperor Rudolf II of Prague, so I started researching the Emperor as well. He was a remarkable person living in an incredible city and time, full of many story possibilities including the kunstkammer (Cabinet of Curiosities) he collected, the Voynich Manuscript, the Devil’s Bible, enough artists and alchemists and scientists (Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Anselmo de Boodt, John Dee, Elizabeth Weston, and many others) to provide a rich cast of characters, and backed up by the intrigue of the events leading up to the 30 Years War. And there was that whole business about the Golem of Prague, too. Great stuff!

Prague_Hoefnagel_

Prague as drawn by Hoefnagel from the early 17th Century.

So I built a plot up, the first book in a series (I hope), and on November 1st started in on writing the novel. This was my second such attempt, the first being a novella competition sponsored by Tor.com in 2015 where I wrote a 39,000 word novella called Dead Stone Lions in about two weeks. That experience was remarkable in that the story wrote itself – minor characters would take on a life of their own and show up as major story points, and ideas just popped into my head as I wrote it, a process that is often referred to as discovery writing. I barely finished in time and had no time for editing, so of course the novella was rejected. But at least I got a first draft done, and will edit it at some future time.

Prague in 1606

A drawing of Prague in 1606 showing the Charles Bridge across the Vltava River.

For the NaNoWriMo novel, which I titled The Golden Apple, the protagonists discover that Atalanta Fugiens is actually a time machine of sorts. By singing the fugues in the book in three voices (Atalanta, Hippomenes, and the Golden Apple) while holding a crystal, they are able to travel to Prague to the Court of Rudolf II and find themselves in the middle of the machinations of Matthias, the brother of Rudolf who is gradually taking control of the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg dynasty. Here is a synopsis I wrote for the book:

 

In the twisted streets of the Old City, a misshapen monster stomps its way through the fleeing crowd. Jeremy McGowan, science teacher and time traveler, is running for his life . . .

Golem_by_Philippe_Semeria

Since my novel is set in Prague in 1609, I have to include a Golem or two. Rabbi Loew, the supposed creator of the Golem of Prague, lived until October 1609.

His fellowship at the Nexus Foundation was supposed to be an escape from the constant reminders of his lost love, not an escape from the legendary Golem of Prague. When he stumbles upon a secret hidden in a remarkable book, Jeremy embarks on a journey with science historians Ankha Zalinski and Benjamin Johnson to the court of Emperor Rudolf II of Bohemia. They hope to solve an ancient puzzle: as a child, Ankha memorized a poem handed down through millennia from her ancestors. It speaks of a Golden Apple, which may be the key to unlocking incredible power.

Emblem 1 color

The first emblem of Atalanta Fugiens, showing Boreas, the God of Winds. In 50 emblems and epigrams, with essays and fugues, Michael Maier laid out the steps needed to achieve the Inner Transformation required to make the Philosophers’ Stone.

Using the legend of Atalanta as their guide, the explorers become the Trinum Magicum, the three alchemical emblems of Paracelsus, on a perilous quest to the past. Pursued by clandestine agents of the Emperor’s brother, Matthias, and hounded by a dark entity from beyond history, they must grapple with the limits of their own humanity. With the aid of Johannes Kepler, Elizabeth Weston, Rabbi Loeb, and other brilliant scholars, they hope to find the Golden Apple, decipher the symbols of a strange manuscript, and prevent a war that will rip Europe apart.

Fire salamander emblem

One of the emblems in Atalanta Fugiens, showing a fire salamander. In some books, such as the copy in the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, the first ten emblems have been hand colored to enhance the value of the book.

In this unique tale of historical science fiction, what appears to be magic may simply be a technology beyond comprehension, if only the travelers can find it in time.

I made my goal, barely, with 50,380 words by November 30, although I had to write 7000 words that last day. Since then, I have taken the book on to over 68,000 words and it is now about halfway done. It is a different experience than Dead Stone Lions, as I’ve had to plot it out much more carefully and think through the details of the whole book series in order to lay a good foundation. It even required writing a long poem full of chemical history references. But it is certainly coming along. Now I need to get back to it, with the goal of finishing it up during this 2018 NaNoWriMo so I can edit and submit it by the end of the year. My goal is to write one of these each year. If I do succeed in finishing it, then in December I will work editing and finding an agent or a publisher that wants to print and market it.

Golden Apple progress chart

This is my progress chart through the month of Nov. 2017. I made my goal of 50,000 words just barely (by 380 words). It required a major sprint of 7000 words on the last day!

We see many space operas, biological science fiction, future tech explorations, and so on but chemistry science fiction is rare. I can only think of Asimov’s The God’s Themselves, which has some chemistry in it (radioactive tungsten, anyone?) but is also about physics, entropy, multiple universes, and space colonization. So I hope my book finds an untapped market, with its references to real alchemists and history and some fascinating mysteries to solve in a remarkable time and place.

NaNo-2017-Winner-Badge

My badge for making my goal of 50,000 words.

So there are seldom any challenges we face that do not have some benefits for us, including silver linings and opportunities that we may never have accepted if we weren’t in dire straits. These changes in direction are never voluntary, but they can be for our good. Sometimes you have to look for the windows that open up when the doors are closed in your face. Sometimes they find you, like these two opportunities that dropped in my lap. I am glad I had the courage to accept them.

Emblem 50 color

Emblem 50 from Atalanta Fugiens, another enigmatic symbol. Reading through the translations of the Latin and German epigrams and discourses doesn’t help all that much for understanding the book. Maier wrote in symbolic language that used many of the ideas behind Rosicrucianism. It will take me years to write all the books; maybe by the time I’m done I’ll have a clearer idea of what he was trying to say. Or maybe not . . .

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Capitol Bldg

I attended the Research Teacher Data Conference at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 13-15, 2017.

Oct. 13-15, 2017
Grand Hyatt Hotel, Washington, D.C.

One of the many ironies of being laid off at American Academy of Innovation is that I still had unfinished business as a teacher to attend to even if I wasn’t teaching any longer. The week before I left, I submitted a STEM Classroom Grant application to the Utah STEM Action Center asking for $1500 to pay for materials for our UAV workshop at the digital citizenship conference. I found out a few weeks later that the grant had been approved, but I have no idea if the money was ever received or used for its intended purposes.

Another holdover was my scheduled attendance at a Research Data Teacher Conference in Washington, D.C. on October 13-15, 2017 sponsored by the Society for Science and the Public, the people who administer the International Science and Engineering Fairs and the Regeneron Science Talent Search. I had heard about the conference and applied for the opportunity while I was still in Bali, Indonesia, then heard a few weeks into the school year that I had been accepted. The trip was all-expenses-paid and there were no out of pocket costs to deplete my non-existent income, so I decided to go ahead and take the trip as planned. They would even provide a $100 credit card to cover meal expenses while traveling. I had never been to D.C. in the fall, and this would get my mind off of my unemployment troubles and perhaps provide some good contacts and networking.

Grand Hyatt entrance

The Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C., site of our Research Teacher Data Conference.

I was scheduled to present with Cindy Rogers, a teacher from Texas I had never met, on the engineering design process. We e-mailed back and forth and put together a good presentation. I did the initial Powerpoint, with additions from Cindy. We would have the participants do the bridge building exercise I’ve done in my Innovation Design classes.

I took my normal flight, Delta 832, across the country and watched part of the movie Inferno with Tom Hanks based on the latest Dan Brown code-breaking thriller. We landed at Washington Reagan, coming in over the Potamac as usual for a steep and fast landing. I got my luggage at the baggage claim downstairs and met up with other arriving teachers at Baggage Claim 12. They had a shuttle bus all ready for us, and we stowed our bags underneath and climbed aboard. The best part of these programs is meeting teachers from around the country, and a lively discussion started as we drove across the Potamac to the Grand Hyatt hotel.

Hyatt interior court

Grand Hyatt Hotel interior courtyard

This was my fourth trip to D.C. in as many years, and I had lived and worked and visited here ever since I was in college, so I’ve gotten to know the city well. I was here just eight months ago for the Teachers for Global Classrooms symposium. This was my first time at the Grand Hyatt, however, and it is quite a hotel with a large inside atrium. I checked in at the main desk and took my bags to my room, which was around on the opposite side of the hotel from the bank of elevators.

We held an opening banquet downstairs from the main lobby and sat by geographical regions. There were two other teachers at my table from Utah, one named Enrique from West High School in Salt Lake City, the other was Charmaine from a charter school in St. George. There were about 200 teachers altogether, all paid for by donations from sponsors to the Society for Science and the Public. The main sponsor is now Regeneron. It used to be Intel, and long ago in my high school days it was sponsored by Westinghouse and was called the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, which I entered as a senior in high school with my project to make a system of methanol-air fuel cells. I did not make it in, but I did make it into the Utah Science Talent Search and won fourth place behind my friends Nicole Van der Heyden and Sven Berg. So this whole meeting felt to me as if I were coming full circle at last. My efforts as a high school science nerd were finally paying off.

Opening banquet

Opening Banquet for the Research Teacher Data Conference. Over 200 teachers were selected and provided an all expenses paid trip to the conference, including three of us from Utah.

Caitlin Sullivan welcomed us to the conference. The purpose of this meeting was to train and encourage like-minded middle and high school science teachers to promote and support students in their efforts to collect data and create science fair projects. We were to attend a series of workshop sessions over two days led by pairs of teachers, including the one led by Cindy and I. During and after the meal, I got to know the other teachers at the table. They were an interesting lot and people I wished I could work with at some future time. Not actually being a teacher at the moment was quite a hindrance for setting up collaborations, since I don’t have any students that their classes can team up with.

Church near hotel

Out to find some Matchbox cars, I walked past this church in the area near our hotel.

I realized on my way to D.C. that I had forgotten to pack some materials I needed for the activity the next day. I had tape and spaghetti and paper, but forgot gumdrops and Matchbox cars. I went out on a supply run, looking for a CVS pharmacy or other convenience store near the Hyatt. I found gummi worms at one place about two blocks from the hotel, and finally found some Matchbox cars at a convenience store near the main gate to China Town. It was just down the street from the hotel and next door to the Mongolian Barbeque place I had eaten at for the Einstein Fellowship interviews a year and a half ago. Now supplied for my presentation, I returned to the hotel and spent the rest of the evening in my room writing blog posts for my Indonesia trip.

The next day we had breakfast in the conference room and a video keynote address from the CEO and founder of Regeneron, who started out as a Science Talent Search winner himself. This company is creating new drugs and medical breakthroughs using the human genome data, and one of the themes of this conference is how to use Big Data. The main keynote speaker was Lisa Purcell, Senior Staff Scientist with Regneron, who discussed Innovating with Rigor. She talked about what rigorous science entails and how to foster it in our classes. Students need to gain inspiration from multiple sources, understand that the data they collect are the data but are open to interpretation, so the interpretation itself needs to be rigorous, and that they need to ask good questions. As teachers, our job is to find motivated students, stimulate innovative thinking, and promote science as a way of thinking. Teachers are the first line advocates for science. Impactful science is innovative, and good science must be rigorous.

Cindy Rogers presenting

Cindy Rogers presenting her portion of our presentation on Preparing Students for Engineering Projects. We had a good group of about 30 teachers in our session.

In Session 1, I attended Kate Travis’ session on Visualizing Science. She is an editor of Science News, and the session was fascinating. She started with one of the first infographics ever created, a map of a cholera epidemic in London that showed all the cases originated from the Broadstreet water pump. She showed a recent and much more sophisticated map of a MERS outbreak in South Korea that had 308 million data points with demographic data that showed super spreaders and airports as hubs of pandemics. She showed video timelapses of glacier retreats based on normalized tourist photos, skycrapers sprouting over cities, visualizations of human migrations, and even one scientist’s daily tracking of his gut bacteria for a year. One of the most fascinating was a collection of GPS location data from research buoys released into the ocean and tracked, which created animations clearly showing ocean gyres such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Another showed duration and speed of Category 5 hurricanes which is zoomable to individual storms, the area under the curve representing joules of energy produced or storm severity. One chart showed data on habitable exoplanets known to date.

Building bridge deck

Teachers in our session beginning to design and build their bridges. The purposes (specifications) were be 13 inches long and support the weight of a Matchbox car pushed across without the car falling into the Tacoma Narrows.

All these charts were zoomable and interactive, and she shared some online software for building such datasets, including StoryMapper, Tableau, and Google Charts. Now I need to check these out and learn how to use them, a big project in itself.

The workshop I chose for Session 2 was Research with Limited Resources by Mark Vondracek and Catherine Nolan. They said that Science Talent Search has 500-600 applicants per year, which is a lot, but many of them come from the same schools. There are 30,000 public high schools. Where are the students from the other 29,500+ schools? Most schools simply don’t have much training or budget for big science projects, but there are many types of projects that don’t require expensive equipment or where data are available online.

Mark spoke of three realms of student STEM research at small schools without extensive equipment: experimental, computational, and online Big Data. They shared a website: http://basement-science.blogspot.com. He talked about projects his students do, such as studying how liquids flow when poured from a higher position. They spread out in a laminar flow pattern for a few centimeters, but it quickly turns turbulent for reasons that are not well understood. They study fracture patterns in dropped apples, use online astrophysics data, NOAA climate data, and data from Fermilab, CERN, and other research labs.

Laying out bridge

Teachers in our session laying out the design of their bridges.

Catherine spoke of how she instills experimental rigor into her students’ projects. She focuses on extensive background research, because one must be educated to make an educated guess. They use online journal sources, keep research journals, and are trained to ask critical questions of the articles they read. Since not all professional science journals are freely available, she partners with universities to allow her students to use their journal access. Her students use Python, GDL-GNU, DS9, and other free resources to unpack and analyze data sources. They use local data from the Forest Service, contact article authors directly, and work with local businesses to meet their research needs through student projects.

After lunch we had another plenary keynote speaker, Dr. Ruth Krumhasi of the Oceans of Data Institute. She started with EDC, which has been around since the Sputnik Era and had 1500 employees collecting scientific articles and data as a central clearinghouse. The ODI launched in 2015 as a way to teach data literacy tools. She spreads her time between two houses in Taos, NM and Nova Scotia and works remotely (nice if you can get it!) and works with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope that is being built in Chile to set up a data analysis pipeline, among other things.

Working on the deck

Teachers putting together the decks of their bridges for the engineering design challenge we gave them.

She talked about why we should teach how to use data. The reasons include a workforce imperative: many jobs now require data analysis skills such as accounting to track doctor effectiveness and forensic science to solve crimes; an educational imperative: big data requires a global perspective and awareness that aren’t being effectively taught (sounds familiar); and a social imperative: basic literacy now requires numeracy, or the ability to understand charts and graphs and interpret data. Those that can’t understand statistics will be controlled by those that can and who know how to manipulate data.

She spoke about how to teach data literacy through an acronym: CLIP: Complex – using multiple sources for data and multiple data sets; Large – abundant data, more than is needed to provide richness and show patterns; Interactive – to explore data, visualize it, break it down, and develop multiple interpretations; and Professional – collected with accuracy and reliability. She gave some examples and talked about the CODAP – common online data analysis platform.

We got da bridge

A teacher group after successfully navigating a Matchbox car over the Tacoma Narrows gorge. Tubby the Dog didn’t die this time!

Session 3 was my and Cindy’s presentation on the Engineering Design Process and the importance of collecting test data to analyze and inform revisions of projects. We each took about ten minutes. I described the engineering cycle and Cindy talked of projects she’s done to incorporate that cycle. We spent the bulk of the time on the challenge: to build a bridge that is 13 inches long made out of spaghetti noodles, gumdrops (or worms in this case), a short piece of masking tape, and one sheet of paper that can support a Matchbox car that is pushed across it. I showed the video of Galloping Gertie to set up the problem, then let them go for it. The solutions were diverse and the teachers enjoyed the hands-on activity. There were about 30 people in attendance, and it was well received. We could have used more time at the end to wrap up and tie in data usage more, but overall it was very successful.

For Session 4 I went to a workshop on Teachers as Researchers led by three teachers. They shared many opportunities out there to do original research, such as the RETs that I already knew about but some that I hadn’t. Two of them did biological research, but one did astrophysics research at the Solar Observatory at Kitt Peak in New Mexico.

Diego_Martinez

Diego Martinez, from the Delphian School in Oregon, who was one of the presenters I attended at the Research Teacher Data Conference. I first met Diego as a MAVEN Education Ambassador at Goddard Space Flight Center in 2015.

Session 5 was called Out of Your League: Harvesting Student Persistence. One of the teachers looked familiar, and I finally placed him – Diego Martinez from the MAVEN Education Ambassadors program two years ago. He was in Alamosa, Colorado (which I traveled through last summer) but is now at the Delphian School in Sheridan, Oregon near Lincoln City. It is one of the oldest charter schools in the country, and talking with him afterwards, it sounded like a great place to teach. He invited me to come visit the school sometime. Since then, I’ve seen that he was chosen as for the 2018 Alan Shepard Technology in Education Award by the Space Foundation and Astronauts Memorial Fund (see https://www.spacefoundation.org/news/science-teacher-diego-martinez-2018-recipient-alan-shepard-technology-education-award). The bio that was posted with the award states that he has done some incredible things in two years he has been at the Delphian School.

Their presentation was on how to get students to persist when they are unfamiliar with their subject matter, including getting them to understand the vocabulary of the subject by circling and looking up any unknown words in their background research. As they become conversant in the language of the subject, they will be better able to understand the subject. They demonstrated the problem of dealing with unfamiliar material by having groups analyze random pages from the Zoom book for 30 seconds and then try to organize them all – they showed a boat on a bus on a street on a stamp where contextual clues were absent to get a sense of scale, and how hard this was to do without references. This is how students look at an unfamiliar subject – they have no context from which to understand it.

On our way to dinner

Teachers at the Research Data Conference on their way to dinner in Washington, D.C.

We met together in the main banquet hall and Caitlin finished up the day by talking about how to use I Wonder journals to get students to ask questions, then gradually build in more rigor and depth with time such as starting with basic questions, then deeper questions with research, asking experts, etc. until they develop a great research question. She wondered if one could open up a sample of air bottled inside a 7-11 or a Panera Bread and still be able to recognize the smell. The question became how one would collect the air – walk through the store with a sweater on?

We divided into groups and walked together to an Italian restaurant nearby. We had about 50 people in the group, but they were ready for us and had seats all arranged. I tried to sit by people I hadn’t yet spoken to, and talked with a lady next to me that had done an internship developing lesson materials. When I told her I had actually used those materials in my own classes, she was pleased to find out her work was still out there.

Capitol and Wash align

Alignment of the Capitol and the Washington Monument on our tour of D.C. on Oct. 14, 2017.

After dinner we walked back to the Grand Hyatt and had some time to change, then those that were interested met in the lobby where two buses took us to see some of the monuments around the Mall. We stopped at the World War II and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorials. I was able to get better photos of them now that I have a nicer camera. Then we bused across the street to the Korean War Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. A group of high school students were there for a party associated with their prom without much supervision, and they were a bit noisy but not really acting out too badly – it’s hard to get too active in formal wear. Some of the teachers with us complained. That tells me they must have very quiet students if this small amount of noise bothered them. Maybe they felt that the students were being too irreverent at such a hallowed spot, but if I lived in the D.C. area, I would probably take these sites for granted, too.

King Memorial

Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C. It was nice to have a better camera this time.

I was getting pretty tired by this point and I had been to all of these sites before, and was becoming weary of socializing. As good as this day had been, I still just wanted to get back to the hotel.

On Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017 I got ready and went down to an excellent breakfast served in the main banquet room of the Grand Hyatt. I had taken my time packing up and getting out of my room, then checking my luggage at the front desk, and was one of the last to arrive for breakfast. While I finished eating I listened as Maya Amjira, CEO of the Society for Science and the Public, addressed us. She was an STS alumnus herself, with a project on duckweed growth. Then Allie Stifel, Director of STS described the program to us. Having submitted my own science fair project as a candidate for the Science Talent Search back as a senior in high school, it was interesting to see the program from the other side. 13 Nobel Prize winners started out in STS, including Kip Thorne. It is a direct apply program – you don’t have to go through qualifying fairs like ISEF. She went through the requirements and deadlines, the prizes for winners (I did win Fourth Place in the Utah STS, but never got close to the national STS).

Lincoln statue

Statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

We then divided up for sessions and I went to one by Joanne Barrett from Out of Doors Academy in Florida on Using Technology in Research. She spoke of the role of teachers to help scaffold the data that students use and how to teach critical thinking. Technology makes finding and analyzing data easy, but that doesn’t mean the students know what to do with it or what it all means. She went over some online tools for data analysis and citation management that I wasn’t aware of before and some tools such as Wolfram Alpha and MathLab that I’ve heard of but need to learn. Gwen Jefferson of Rialto, CA talked about using handheld devices and types of projects her students have done and how she’s managed the data reporting and abstract requirements of projects.

WWII fountain and Wash Mon

World War II memorial and Washington Monument.

This was the last session that I have notes for; I remember going to one other but can’t remember the topic. It had been a busy two days and I was dragging by the end. There wasn’t really a final session for all of the teachers together to summarize the experience, so we were free to make our ways home. We had scheduled buses back to the airport, and mine was a bit later than others, so I got my luggage from the front desk and put it in the belly of the bus when it first arrived. I had some time to hang out before the bus left, so I went for a short walk around the area – down toward China Town, where I found a courtyard with colorful vines growing overhead and interestingly painted animal statues.

Returning to the hotel, I climbed aboard the bus and waited for 15 minutes before it left. As other teachers got on, I talked with them and encouraged them to apply for the Teachers for Global Classrooms program, which several said they would look into. I guess that I am an evangelist for the program now.

Fall vines and colorful camels

Fall vines and colorful camels, in a courtyard near the entrance to Chinatown in Washington, D.C.

I took a few more photos of the Capitol Building and other monuments on our way back to the Reagan Airport. I was there in plenty of time, as my usual flight wasn’t until 5:20, so I checked my bag and walked to the terminal and ate a good hamburger there. I had to be careful about the amount of money I spent, given that I have no income. I wanted to have some extra per diem left over on the $100 credit card we were given to cover meals.

I walked through Security without problem and waited at the gate, the same one I’ve used for the last several trips to D.C. I had about an hour to wait, and tried to read Most Likely to Succeed but kept dozing off. Finally my flight boarded and I had an uneventful trip back to Utah.

Jefferson Memorial

A decent photo of the Jefferson Memorial as we drove past on our way back to the airport.

There are so many things I would like to try out that I learned at this conference, but will have to wait until I have students again. When I do get re-hired, I hope it is in a place where we can learn some of these possibilities. In the meantime, I have good notes. As much as I think my students have been doing these things, I’ve found there is so much more to discover, a whole level of effort above anything I thought was possible. I feel like a rank amateur compared to some of the teachers I’ve met this weekend.

Dr King gazing out

Dr. King gazing out across the Tidal Basin.

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The previous 80 or so posts have focused on global education and my extraordinary adventure teaching and traveling in Indonesia. I wrote those blogs as one document while I was on the exchange program itself, filling in the details when I returned home so that I could post everything in chronological order and keep a coherent story thread throughout.

 I am doing that again with stories and adventures that have happened to me since. And much has happened, but since I don’t really know what the end of the story is yet, I won’t actually post these tales until I have a definite conclusion. I apologize for the gap in posting this will cause, but it will be better thought out this way.

David Black with fall colors

David Black enjoying the fall leaves behind Squaw Peak in late September 2017. Then the floor caved in . . .

Returning to American Academy of Innovation:

I had only two days at home to recover from jet lag before I had to report back to American Academy of Innovation for our teacher preparation and training days for Fall Semester 2017. Our school had grown over the summer, from about 220 students at the end of our first year to over 300 by the start of our second year, with the addition and replacement of a number of teachers. We would be re-working our project structure by separating out projects for middle school versus high school students. The middle school students would be in separate classes by gender. And we were adding to our Dell laptops and chrome books with all new Apple laptops, desktops, and iPads with new software, including the entire Adobe Creative Cloud and Autodesk Maya for 3D. I was extremely excited to hear of this, as it would turn my dreams of an innovative media design program into a reality. Much of what I had wanted to do the previous year was frustrated by inadequate computers and software.

Scott Jones eclipse

Scott Jones, Director of AAI, with students watching the Sept. 21, 2017 solar eclipse.

It took a couple of weeks into the school year to get the software installed and operational, but I then immediately set to work teaching the students Adobe Photoshop in two completely full classes. I wasn’t teaching middle school classes this year, but chemistry, earth systems, astronomy, and two sections of media design. We were planning on a school-wide project to host a digital citizenship conference workshop at AAI, and student teams were preparing demonstrations and sessions for the workshop. I was mentoring a team creating a racing course for UAVs and starting up a robotics club. All was looking good, and our new students were coming along nicely. I even received the long overdue chemistry lab tables that had been on order for almost a year.

Watching the eclipse

AAI students watching the 2017 solar eclipse. Little did I know that my teaching at AAI was about to be eclipsed.

For the solar eclipse on Sept. 21, we had glasses for most students and let the whole school out to watch. At our location in Salt Lake Valley, the eclipse was about 90%, and I got some good photos of it with my camera. A few days later, Shannon McConnell, the director of the Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope Project (GAVRT) at JPL, stopped by my classroom and addressed interested students. She had been to Idaho to see the totality and had contacted me to see if I wanted her to stop in my school on her way back to southern California. I said yes, of course. She made a great presentation and we had a good group of students attend. It appeared that the school year was off to a great start.

Solar eclipse 2017

A photo of the solar eclipse. At our location in Salt Lake Valley, we reached about 90% of totality.

Then the floor caved in on me. We had projected having about 380 students for the year to justify the budget, teachers, computers, and other costs we were spending. At the first of October each year, the state of Utah sends auditors into the schools to get an accurate count of average daily attendance for final budgeting purposes. Due to a few families dropping out in September, instead of 380 students, we had 314. Suddenly, our budget had to be cut drastically. They couldn’t send back the new computers, so they decided to balance the budget by laying off teachers and staff and consolidating classes. I was called in on Thursday, Oct. 5 and told I would be one of the ones laid off. It was quite a shock!

Shannon McConnell in my class

Shannon McConnell, director of the GAVRT program at JPL, addressing my class.

Given all that I had done to lead the Project Based Learning program at the school, and all that I was contributing with global education and media design skills training, laying me off did not make sense from a strategic viewpoint. It did, however, make sense from a financial viewpoint – I was one of the most experienced teachers at the school and therefore one of the most expensive to employ. They could save more money getting rid of me than someone else. Since I was teaching higher-level classes, my class sizes were smaller and it would cause less disruption to students than if they laid off someone else. They needed to make a quick financial decision and they made it.

Shannon addressing class

Shannon McConnell talking to my students about NASA opportunities.

The school director agreed to write positive letters of recommendation, including for my application to the Albert Einstein fellowship program in Washington, D.C. which he did that night (as I was still employed for one more day). I had two days to pack up all my stuff and take it home. I didn’t even have the chance to say goodbye to many of my students; they found out on Monday when their classes were changed around and I was already gone.

Drone Races group

My group for the Digital Citizenship summit project. We were planning a UAV drone race event.

Staying Positive:

As with my blog posts about Indonesia, I am trying to stay positive in the stories that I tell and in my attitude toward my life in general. I looked at this as a chance to find something even better, but it was slow coming. I was 57 years old when they laid me off (and yes, there are legal issues about that) so it wasn’t easy finding a new job that would meet my salary requirements in the middle of a school year. I immediately set up accounts with many job search engines, the Department of Workforce Services, Indeed.com, and everywhere else I could think of.

Cameron Brown with drone

Cameron, the leader of the drone race group, with his quadcopter drone. The plan was to build a series of obstacles on our playing field, then have participants race drones through the course. We were well into the planning and building phase when I left AAI.

At first it was nice to have some time off to re-organize my life and my house, write my Indonesia blog posts, and work on some long-term bucket list items. I will write at more length about some of the silver linings my time of unemployment provided, but it was still a difficult time for me. You start questioning your worth, your competence, and your accomplishments when no one seems to care.

In between applying for jobs, I took the opportunity to enjoy the fall season. The colors in the mountains this year were incredible, the best I’d seen in many years. I took my youngest son on a trip up Hobble Creek Canyon to photograph the fall colors. As a whole family, we drove up to Squaw Peak overlooking the whole valley and the colors and view were amazing. I took walks with my wife, and I finally got the summer vacation I hadn’t had because of my trip to Indonesia.

Road to Squaw Peak-fall 2017

The road to Squaw Peak overlook with fall colors.

As the weeks dragged on and turned into months, I started looking at alternatives. My original plan was that this would be my last year of classroom teaching before I fulfilled an Einstein Fellowship or started a PhD program. I looked at starting my own business; I even took a class each Thursday night and got advice from the Small Business Development Center at Utah Valley University. I began to work on various science fact and lesson plan book projects again, and created a detailed plan of how to complete them to bring in some income. I even signed up for the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) program to complete 50,000 words of a novel. It would be the first of my Trinum Magicum books, which I have been planning since my time in Philadelphia at the Chemical Heritage Foundation nine years ago. And I did it – I wrote 50,380 words in 30 days. I am about half way through the novel and just getting to the good part.

Provo Temple from Squaw Peak-fall

Utah Valley with a view toward Mt. Nebo from the Squaw Peak overlook: Fall 2017.

One surprising opportunity dropped in my lap in October. I walked onto a musical production of Miracle on 34th Street at the SCERA Playhouse here in Orem and was given four parts. We performed for two weeks in December and there is no way I could have done this if I had continued at AAI.

Goodbye to AAI:

Despite my ultimate success in the job hunt, I still miss American Academy of Innovation. It was (and is) a school with tremendous potential, if they can only get their financial act together. This wasn’t the first time they laid off teachers due to budget problems. Once is a stopgap emergency measure, but twice becomes a habit. Ultimately such a habit will undermine morale and any progress the school hopes to make. I miss many of the students, who were among the best I’ve ever taught. I miss the project-based learning environment and the chance to teach my STEAM it Up, 3D animation, and media design classes. I miss working with the teachers there, but my new colleagues are fantastic too. Some things I don’t miss – the long commute, the high percentage of disrespectful and overly entitled students, and the uncertain budget with its unfulfilled promises.

Fall colors back of Squaw Peak

Fall colors on the back of Squaw Peak.

I am getting almost the same rate of pay, and my commute is one half what it was before and in the opposite direction of traffic. I leave at the same time as before and get home by 3:30 each afternoon when I was just getting out of my last period class at AAI and not getting home until 6:00 or even 7:00. I have my homework all graded by the end of each day, so there is not much take-home work for me now. I have time to work on other projects in the evenings or do fun things with my children. So there are silver linings galore to my being laid off. It was a hard but valuable experience.

Hobble Creek golden trees-2017

Golden cottonwoods in Hobble Creek Canyon

I am a firm believer that when a door closes, one should start looking for windows to open up. They truly have. Onward and upward!

Fall colors on Timp

Fall colors on Mt. Timpanogas: Fall 2017

Hobble Creek-fall 2017

Maples and oaks in Hobble Creek Canyon

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Jakarta Day 8: Monday, July 31, 2017

Sticky notes

One of our activities was to write down our guiding questions on a large poster paper, then write sticky notes to add observations or suggestions to each other’s questions based on our own experiences in the field.

Now that we had completed our field teaching experience and had returned to Jakarta, it was time for reflection and evaluation. What had we learned from all of this? How will this impact our teaching going forward? How will we answer the guiding questions we chose at the beginning of this experience?

We met in a conference room near the elevators on the second floor after having breakfast. It was nice having the larger buffet at the Le Meridien Hotel.

We started by reflecting on our guiding questions through writing them up and conducting a gallery stroll. My own question was: How do different human cultures approach the common problems or needs of humanity? This is a very general question, so I further defined it through some sub-questions:

1 – How do we solve the need for materials (for shelter, food, clothing, transportation, etc.)?

2 – How do we solve the need for self-expression (through art, humor, play, etc.)?

3 – How do we solve the need to understand the universe and its mysteries (through science and religion)?

Let’s look at each of these as I have answered them so far. I will add more and create final reflections after my five day extension, where I will be exploring these ideas further.

Question 1: How do we solve the need for materials (for shelter, food, clothing, transportation, etc.)?

Sasirangan swatches

We saw how humans have a desire to decorate and design through art. We we don’t need to dye cloth, but all cultures do it as these samples of sasirangan testify.

This has been an ongoing quest of mine over the last ten years as I have created the Elements Unearthed project and this website. I have explored how the chemical elements and materials were discovered, how they are made, how they are mined, refined, and turned into finished products. I continued this project while in Indonesia, although more will come later this week. I’ve brought my students along for the ride.

I took students to record video of a tour of Novatek, a synthetic diamond manufacturing company in south Provo, Utah. I had an adult student at the time that worked there and organized the tour. He acted as our tour guide and explained the history of how Tracy Hall invented the process at Bell Labs. He showed us how graphic dust is compressed and heated to form industrial diamonds for oil drills. He showed us the tetrahedral press I had seen in operation as a high school student. My students turned the footage into a short video that is on this website under the Videos tab.

Dyeing green cloth

Dyeing cloth green to make Borneo sasirangan.

But that was only part of the story. Now I have been to the Cempaka diamond mines to see have natural diamonds are recovered from deposits laid down millions of years ago. I have written about it on this blog site, and my chemistry students will turn the photos and videos into a final product for YouTube.

Dyed cloth

Dyed cloth hanging up to dry in Banjarmasin at the sasirangan factory, although it won’t dry very well in this rainstorm.

Through my batik class in Jakarta and seeing the sasirangan made in Banjarmasin, I have continued to research how fabrics and dyes are used for make clothing, following up on what we’ve been doing in my chemistry and STEAM it Up classes. This will also continue later this week.

This is all to say that this question is still being answered and will continue to be. My quest to understand materials isn’t over yet.

Question 2: How do we solve the need for self-expression (through art, humor, play, etc.)?

This is probably the most culturally unique question, as every culture has its own methods of self-expression. However, there are some common threads that I have observed here in Indonesia compared with American or western culture. We all have a need to self-express, despite it taking different forms.

Batik pattern

A batik pattern ready for dyeing. The wax (called malam and a brownish-yellow color) is applied to a penciled pattern on both sides of the cloth, then the cloth is dyed leaving the dyed portion white.

All cultures and people have a sense of the beautiful. The batik I’ve seen at the Museum Tekstil Jakarta and the sasirangan in Banjarmasin is beautiful to me, even though I don’t understand the origin of the patterns. We all have a love for colors and textures, and although the details change with culture, this love is ubiquitous in all societies.

Nikki and Jen doing batik

Nikki and Jennifer practicing batik. The small wax pen, or canting, is held at a 45 degree angle to apply the wax resist. This is definitely an art form and takes great practice.

All cultures include physical art (painting, carving, sculpture, fabrics), music, dance, puppetry, drama, etc. These take uniquely beautiful forms in different cultures – for example, the gamelon orchestras popular here that use percussion instruments, xylophones, cymbals, and drums. This might not be your particular taste in art, but the more you research its history and meaning, the more interesting it becomes. I didn’t much care for Beijing Opera in Taiwan, but that is because I didn’t understand its symbolism and history. The more we study other cultures, the richer our appreciation of their art becomes. Yet despite the differences, I am amazed at the similarities. I can enjoy and recognize harmonies and melodies from a traditional Banjarese band without ever having heard one before.

Traditional band

Traditional Borneo band in the lobby of the Swiss Belhotel in Banjarmasin.

Another form of self-expression is in the stories and jokes we tell that describe and explain the human condition. I found the Indonesian people to be ready with a smile and a joke, to be a humorous and kind people and the sort of people I would like to hang out with if I could understand their language better. We might have different beliefs and life experiences, but we are more alike than different, and we have the same goals and desires in life.

I often think that the best thing that could happen to humanity would be to meet a truly alien intelligent species, whether they are hostile, friendly, or indifferent. Seeing that we are all humans, all brothers and sisters in a very real sense, would unite us more effectively than any international movement ever could.

Question 3: How do we solve the need to understand the universe and its mysteries (through science and religion)?

I saw directly from my experience teaching science and engineering lessons in Banjarmasin that science and math are the truly universal languages. I was afraid of a communication breakdown as I attempted to teach my lessons, but with the help of Nazar’s excellent English and our universal understanding of scientific principles that the students were able to understand. I was able to teach them despite cultural and language barriers.

Laying down planets

Laying out the planet rings for the human orrery activity.

This was the question I most wanted to explore, knowing that I would be going to a largely Muslim country. I tried to observe the daily lives of my host teacher and his family as well as the people around us – the other teachers at our school, the people we met daily, the students at the schools we visited, etc.

I am a Christian. I have studied world religions and lived for two years as a missionary in Taiwan, where I experienced the religious practices of the people (and myself) every day. I have been to Israel and Jerusalem where I saw Judaism and Islam practiced. But this was the first time I saw Islam closely and on a daily basis, and try to build some bridges of understanding.

Buddha-s

A statue of the Amita Buddha at the Fwo Gwang Shan monastery near PingTung, Taiwan.

As I have found elsewhere, people of all faiths have much in common. The first is their faith itself, the desire to believe in something beyond themselves, a truth higher than themselves. Religions, if practiced purely, should teach people to do good and to be better citizens of the world. They should teach us to respect each other. It is only when people misinterpret their religions and see hate where they should see understanding that we get the extremists that cause so much damage.

Duomo-s

The cathedral and baptistry in Florence, Italy. The large dome (called the Duomo) dominates the skyline of the city and was designed by Brunelleschi.

This can happen in any religion. Back in the Middle Ages, the Crusaders were the terrorists of their day, slaughtering innocent people in the name of their supposed faith. In one horrible case, they killed Armenian Christians in Jerusalem just because they didn’t look like the sort of Christians they were used to. Whenever we start treating people in other cultures as “foreign” or “other” than ourselves, we start thinking of them as less than human, and it becomes all too easy to justify persecution or prejudice or worse.

This can only be overcome by understanding the others – getting to know them personally and seeing that we are more alike than different, that we have much in common. This trip to Indonesia has had that benefit for me, as I hoped it would. I tried to see all the people I met as potential friends if I could just learn how to communicate with them. We have common ground to build on.

Large temple-s

A large Buddhist temple in southern Taiwan.

This journey is not over, and I will continue to explore Buddhism and Hinduism as I travel to Yogyakarta and Bali later this week. I will report more fully on these ideas once my trip to Indonesia is over.

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