Archive for the ‘Weekly Post’ Category


Glass flowers made by AAI students at Holdman Studios.

During the 2016 fall semester at American Academy of Innovation, I started out in a bare science classroom without any lab stations or sinks. This was a challenge, but also an opportunity as I got the chance to design my own lab. Once I had finished the design and the architects rendered their version of it and the bids came back, it was late October. By the time the cabinet makers were ready to install, it was the week before Thanksgiving. I moved everything into the center of the room and covered it all with a large green tarp for the duration of the construction. I moved my classes into the school library for three weeks.


Glass flowers made by students at AAI. Mine is the red one with blue edges at the bottom right.

Since my STEAM it Up class couldn’t build sculptures or do tie dyed shirts or other such projects in the library, we took the three weeks to learn video filming techniques. I also set up a tour of a local glass studio. We researched the processes of glass blowing and the students wrote up a basic script and filmed the narration.


First step: Gathering molten glass onto the puntil rod from the crucible.

Now I have done this before, as reported previously. I took a group of students from Mountainland Applied Technology College to Holdman Studios in 2009 to document the processes of glass blowing and stained glass artistry. The blown glass video was edited into a short description of the process which can be found here on YouTube (https://youtu.be/0TyDqZCGkpI ) and on my video page in this blog.


Step 2: The molten glass is shaped on a metal shelf next to the crucible.

This time I wanted to get additional footage and give my new students a fun experience, so I set up a class for them to learn how to make glass flowers. These are simpler because they only involve stretching the glass, not blowing, so each student who wanted to pay the fee could make their own.


Step 3: The glass is rolled in colored cullet or frit to produce the interior stem color.

We traveled down to Thanksgiving Point to Holdman Studios on November 30, 2016. We signed up and chose our colors. I set up some video cameras to record the process and explanation. A puntil rod is used and not a blowpipe since no blowing is needed.

Here are the steps for making a glass flower: A pre-heated puntil rod is used to gather the molten glass from the crucible, where it is shaped into a cone on a metal shelf.


Step 4: The first gather is balanced by rolling it at the rolling station.

Colored cullet or frit is added to the molten glass by rolling it through the frit on the marver table. The rod is rolled to get the glass to the desired balance. A second layer of glass is gathered at the crucible and a second color added at the marver table. The first color will be the interior or stem of the flower, the second will be the outside edge or petals of the flower.


Step 5: A second layer of molten glass is added and shaped, then rolled in a second color of cullet to create the flower petal color.

The student at the rolling station then uses forceps to pull out the molten glass into a flower shape. If the student is too cautious or takes too long (like me) the glass may cool too much to be pulled and must be reheated in the glory hole.


Step 6: A flat paddle is used to flatten the molten glass agains the puntil rod, to allow for a hollow stem in the flower. I am wearing gloves and a fireproof sleeve to prevent my arm from getting burned. The glass is very hot.


Step 7: The student begins to pull out flower petals from the molten glass.

Once the flower shape is done, the flower is pulled out along the axis of the puntil rod to form a stem, which is either kept straight or twisted up depending on what the student wants. The glass is scored and knocked off the puntil, then fire polished with a blowtorch and placed in an annealing oven for 24 hours to gradually cool down.


Step 8: Working quickly around the flower, the student continues to pull out the glass to make the flower larger. It feels like pulling taffy.

Six students and two adults, including myself, made flowers. They turned out very well. I had to return two days later to pick them up, and the colors were amazing as seen in these photos. Mine is the flower with a red stem with blue petals, which I gave to my wife as a Christmas present. The process was tricky but fun. I had to wear gloves and a fireproof sleeve to prevent my arm hairs from singing. The glass felt like pulling taffy. I highly recommend that you try this out if you get a chance.


Step 9: If the glass begins to cool (as mine did because I took too much time to pull it), the piece must be re-heated in the glory hole.

We got some good photos and video, even though lighting conditions in the studio are challenging (there is a strong backlight). Audio is also a problem as the glory hole and fans are noisy. But I can hear the explanations well enough to at least transcribe the footage, and record new narration over the top when I finally edit all of this together into a longer video.


Step 10: Once the flower shape is done, the flower is pulled away from the puntil along its axis to create a stem for the flower. The first color of cullet becomes the stem color.

If you want to schedule your own lessons to learn to make glass flowers or even blow your own Christmas ornaments, here is the link to the Holdman Studios page:



Step 11: If the student desires, the puntil rod can be rolled to twist up the stem.


Step 12: The glass is scored with forceps, knocked off the puntil rod, then placed on fireproof cloth and fire polished with a blowtorch, as I am doing here. The flower is then placed in the annealing oven (at left) to slowly cool down over 24 hours.


Some of the students at American Academy of Innovation who made glass flowers at Holdman Studios.


Displays of glass at Holdman Studios. In addition to classes for making glass flowers, the staff also holds classes for traditional glass blowing including making Christmas ornaments.

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A hat created by Justin, one of my STEAM it Up students. It is made of upcycled and repurposed materials.

At the beginning of the school year in my STEAM it Up class I had the students vote on which of many possible projects they wanted to work on. The one unit they all agreed on was to make a series of sculptures or cosplay items out of repurposed, upcycled junk. I’ve been collecting materials for years, ever since I created my first “junk” sculpture at the age of 18. I’ve taught this unit three times before in Intersession classes and afterschool clubs when I was at Walden School of Liberal Arts. The results were mixed – the high school students did fairly well, but not so much the middle school students. It seems at that age students are much better at tearing things apart than at systematically planning how to put them back together.


Small junk sculpture of a cat, made by Emily.

My main reason for teaching the class was to actually use up the junk I’ve been collecting and clean out my workshop. Yet it seems I wind up with more stuff before than after – maybe because of the aforementioned “tearing apart” proclivity of middle school students; what was nicely compacted as old VCRs and DVD players is now a series of scattered pieces.


A bracelet and a diagram, created for my STEAM it Up class.

So I was a bit reluctant to do this again and bring in boxes of materials that inevitably make a terrible mess in my classroom. But I also knew it could be fun and educational if done right, so I took the chance. I structured this differently than before: each student would need to produce three items. The first would be a small sculpture as a beginning exercise, something that can be easily held in one hand. The second would be a cosplay item or some type of costume piece or wearable sculpture or prop. The third would be a group project where all eight students would plan out a large-scale sculpture together. The second and third projects needed to be sketched out and planned in advance.


A little man, made from old keys and other recycled objects. Glued together with hot glue and E-6000 adhesive.

They came up with a variety of interesting sculptures for their first and second projects, as seen here. I am also including some of their sketches, although in too many cases they drew the sketches after they made the sculptures. Some of the sculptures involved LED lights, which took some planning and thinking through. The point is to teach them some engineering and materials science skills, and engineers plan everything out in advance. Some students resist this, as they see these sculptures as art forms, not engineering designs, and pre-planning seems to them to impede the creative process. Of course, without planning and thinking through how to attach the disparate materials together, their sculptures tend to fall apart. Glue alone can’t hold a load-bearing member like a leg or arm.


A tiny soldier, made by Noah for my STEAM it Up class.

Which is why we are doing a group project. We decided to build a futuristic Mars colony city (to go with our school’s overall Mars Exploration project – more on this coming in my other blog at http://spacedoutclassroom.com).


A space ship sculpture, made from recycled motherboards and other electronic junk.

Two years ago, we had someone contribute a lot of materials to Walden School that were from a doctor’s office or scientist’s lab. I still have no clue what most of the stuff was even for – some of it is probably valuable as antiques. One item was a still for making distilled water, but bought in the early 1970s because of its horrible avocado green color scheme. I managed to get a chemistry professor at Brigham Young University to take it off my hands. But the rest of the stuff was of little use. One item was a plastic autoclave, with multiple levels for sterilizing surgical equipment. There were also glass containers for storing or cleaning microscope slides (I think – based on similar plastic items I’ve seen in the Flinn Scientific catalog).


A flying saucer that lights up, made by Sam for my STEAM it Up class.

The autoclave looks like a domed city, something out of Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel series of books about the android R. Daneel Olivaw and Detective Elijah Bailey. We were looking at the autoclave and other materials and “noodling around,” which is an important scientific and engineering creative process: putting things together that don’t normally go together and seeing what would look good and work toward a harmonious whole. We came up with the glass containers as pillars for the autoclave layers. One of the students suggested offsetting the layers. I sketched these ideas out on my whiteboard, and we worked through how to attach everything together using metal piping from old 1980s brass and glass furniture with bolts and L-brackets, and wire to tie the pillars together to make the whole thing structurally sound.


A steampunk bracelet with LED light, made by Sam.

Teams of students took different layers. The bottom layer (Level 1) will be the industrial and manufacturing center, so one team is making industrial-style equipment and buildings that look like factories and power plants. One team is doing Level 2, which is the main residential sector. One team is doing Level 3, which is the administrative, shopping, hospital, and school level. They built a school from an old calculator and wanted the holes to become solar panels. I remembered having a folder with a shiny metallic-blue cover, so we cannibalized it to become the solar cells. Level 4 is the park, university, and upper class residential sector, and the dome will have spaceports, defense, and communications centers. Already the pieces are shaping up. This is exactly the engineering and materials science I had hoped for when we started this unit.


Magic wand, made by Sarah for my STEAM it Up class.

We are now beginning the construction of the main city levels, but Winter Break has halted the process. It will be our last project for the STEAM it Up class. It will sit upon two wooden plaques, again donated from the doctor’s office, and we’ll create smaller domes for hydroponics and farms, with small Mars rovers (already made by one student who is great at miniaturized sculptures).


Small sculptures created by my STEAM it Up students: a stamp and a ring.

We’ll make Mars landscaping from paper maché and HO scale model train decorations. I also hope to put wires up through the support shafts and add LED lights to the city. The final city will be quite heavy and hard to move around, so it will stay in my classroom and make a great decoration for my newly completed lab. We’re photographing the construction process, I’ll interview the students, and we’ll add all of this to our ongoing Mars project documentary video. I’ll write another blog post in January when we can show the finished sculpture. I would also like to create a virtual 3D model of the finished city so we can animate and label the parts.


First drawing of our Mars colony, using parts from an autoclave as the levels of our city and glass microscope slide cleaners as pillars.

We still need to pick a name for it. Looking up names for Mars in various cultures, and adding translations for the word “city,” I come up with some possibilities: Aresdelphia, Al-Qahira Madina, Harmakhis Delphi, Hradelphia or Hrad K’aghak’, Huo Hsing Shr, Ma’adim Delphi, Kaseishi, Mangalakha, Martedelphia or Marte Cuidad, Mawrth Dinas, Nirgal Alu, Shalbatana Alu, Simudelphia, Labouville, and Tiuburg. We’ll have to vote on it.


Even without glue or bolts, the layers stack up fairly well in this first attempt to build the Mars colony city. We decided to use two of the boards instead of one so we could add more landscaping and farming domes using HO-scale model railroad decor.

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Pict warriors painted blue with woad pigment. With their blue skin and red hair and mustaches, these warriors must have intimidated even the Romans.

While we were researching dyes for our dyeing lab, I came upon the history of woad, a plant that produces a blue dye used by Europeans for millennia before indigo was imported. It originated somewhere in the steppes north of Asia Minor and was grown, traded, and transplanted all across Europe until it reached Germany, France, and England. During the time of the Romans, warriors from one tribe of Britons would dye or tattoo themselves with woad in elaborate patterns to frighten their enemies. The Romans called them Picts because of the pictures they drew on themselves.


Balls of woad. In England, woad leaves were crushed and rolled into balls, then allowed to ferment to precipitate the blue indigotin dye.

During the Renaissance, woad trading and dyeing made whole towns wealthy. In England, many acres were planted to woad. The leaves were harvested and mashed, then rolled into balls and allowed to ferment in a shed. The fermentation allowed the indigotin dye molecule to precipitate out of the plant leaves. The process smelled rather awful, and laws were passed banning any woad dyeworks within two miles of a town.


An illustration of a woad mill in France. The leaves were gathered, crushed mechanically, formed into balls, and allowed to ferment. It was a smelly process, done in the country away from cities.

The other major source of blue dye before synthetics were invented was the indigo plant, which is native to warm and humid climates. Different cultures worldwide have invented their own methods of extracting the indigotin dye from the plants. Japanese dyers would allow the indigo leaves to ferment in a vat to remove oxygen. In India, the leaves were also soaked in vats then treaded by humans to mash the indigo and release the pigment, which was dried and pressed into cakes. Once indigo became known in Europe, it replaced woad as the choice for blue dye because the indigo plant has more indigotin and is therefore cheaper to produce. One wealthy indigo trader, Heinrich Schliemann, used his wealth to explore the ancient site of Troy. Another, Percival Lowell, used his family’s indigo wealth to build the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona to look for life on Mars. Levi Strauss used indigo to dye his original blue denim pants. As you can see, it’s had an impact on history.


Young woad plants, with yarn dyed using the extracted indigotin pigment.

As part of my research, I discovered something completely unexpected: dyers had imported woad to Utah in the early 1900s and tried to grow it here. Since it originated in a high desert environment, it did well in Utah’s climate. In fact, it did too well. It got away from the dyer’s fields and went wild, growing all over the western United States. It is now considered to be a Class 3 Invasive Weed, which means it is almost out of control. The only way to prevent it from spreading further is to pull up the plants before they go to seed.


A woad plant, growing in the southwest corner of Salt Lake Valley in Utah. Dyers brought woad to Utah in the early 1900s and it got away from them.

I memorized the characteristics of woad plants, knowing I would want to try to find some and take my students on a “Woad Twip.” Woad has dark green leaves with a white vein. These leaves are clustered at the base of the plant. It sends up tall flower spikes with yellow flower clusters in the late spring. By fall, the flowers become brownish-red pendular seed pods with many small black seeds.


More woad growing in Salt Lake Valley. I discovered this by accident while collecting late rabbitbrush blossoms. The seed pods can contain hundreds of thousands of seeds in a single clump of plants, and can spread quickly.

By mid October the rabbitbrush blossoms were beginning to fade. I needed to collect as much as I could for continued experiments, so I found a spot in the middle of Mountain View Corridor in southwestern Salt Lake Valley where the rabbitbrush blossoms were still bright, and I stopped there after school on a Friday. While I was out collecting the rabbitbrush blossoms, I noticed a plant I hadn’t seen before. It was woad! So I collected several bags full of leaves and some seed pods, with the idea of trying to grow some in my back yard.


Cutting woad leaves to extract the indigotin dye.

My chemistry students cut the leaves into pieces and also separated out the seeds. We looked up the ancient process of woad extraction and found some websites that describe how it is still being done at small farms in England. The process involves quite a bit of chemistry. I am attaching a PDF file that describes the steps. Here it is:



Whipping woad solution to add oxygen and precipitate the indigotin.

In summary, the indigotin dye in woad and indigo is a rather delicate molecule. Too much heat will destroy it, but some heat is needed to extract it from the leaves. The chopped leaves are steeped in water at 90° C for 10-15 minutes. The leaf fragments are strained out and the liquid has soda ash added to make the solution basic. To precipatate the indigotin, the solution must be whipped with an electric mixer for 15-20 minutes to add oxygen to the solution. The solution is poured into dishes and allowed to settle. The supernate is carefully poured or filtered off and the final pigment allowed to dry.


After adding soda ash and whipping the woad solution, we poured into dishes to allow the pigment to settle out. We then poured off the supernate.

We took it this far in chemistry class. Our next step will be to put the purified indigotin in a 50-60° bath and add some sodium hydrosulfite to the solution. This is a reducing agent that converts the blue indigotin into leuco (white) indigotin, which will dissolve in water and turn yellow-green. It takes about an hour of careful heating without stirring to do the conversion. While it is simmering (but not boiling), the fabric or yarn must be heated up in a bath with some soda ash. Once the solution turns yellow-green, the hot fabric or yarn can be carefully added without dripping or splashing. After about ten minutes, the dye has absorbed into the fabric but not yet bonded. When it is removed and exposed to the air, the fabric will turn from green to blue as the indigo converts from leuco back to blue indigo. As it precipitates out, it bonds with the fabric. Hopefully.


Woad dye pigment settling out on the bottom of our dishes. We poured off the supernate and dried out the final pigment.

I purchased some pure indigo from Dharma Trading Company and was in the middle of heating the dye bath with sodium hydrosulfite after school on Tuesday when our fire alarm went off – an exterior pipe in our fire suppression system had frozen and burst, so we had to evacuate the building. I quickly unplugged everything and left. It was the last day before Winter Break. I hope to return by tomorrow and continue the experiment. If it works with pure indigo, I will demonstrate the process in chemistry with our own woad pigment when we return from break. I’ll update this blog post then.


Andean people with naturally dyed alpaca yarn and clothing. The purples and reds come from cochineal, the oranges and yellows from tree bark, etc. All cultures have solved the problem of how to dye cloth; dyestuffs are found around the world.

All cultures around the world have found ways to solve the problem of how to dye fabrics. They’ve found dyestuffs in plants, minerals, and animals; through continual experimentation they’ve realized that certain salts (mordants) will help make the dyes colorfast. The process of oxidizing, then reducing indigo must have taken a long time to discover. It amazes me that such a complicated process could be developed in many countries and cultures, each with their own way of accomplishing the same thing, and all to get a permanent blue dye.



Alpaca wool yarn dyed with cochineal.

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aai-video-frameIn my last post, I said goodbye to Walden School of Liberal Arts after teaching there for six eventful years. My original plan was to spend a year in Washington, D.C. as an Einstein Fellow, but despite making it to the final round, I was not chosen. My Plan B was to go back to school for a PhD, but even though I was accepted to the STEM Education program at the University of Kentucky, I deferred for at least a year so that I could earn up more money for the move. I interviewed at four schools and received two offers, and accepted the offer at American Academy of Innovation.


Illustration of American Academy of Innovation

It is a brand new charter school with a mission for project-based learning, stem education, and international partnerships. They started building it in January and the contractors were still putting in finishing touches as we met for the first time as a faculty on August 15, 2016. Our Director is Scott Jones, who has a great deal of experience directing and working in charter school environments. The teachers have been hired from all around, some from Texas, the East and West Coasts, and several from Utah, Idaho, and Alaska. It appears to be a highly creative group of teachers.


Innovation Orange: American Academy of Innovation on my first day there.

We took a tour of the building and saw what it will look like in the next two weeks – except for my science room. It hasn’t been finished, partly because of last minute changes to the water and gas lines, partly so that they can get my input. I have since designed the lab, with four student stations, a fume hood and teacher demo desk, and lots of cupboards for storage. As I am writing this (November 14, 2016), the contractors are building in the lab stations – hooray! – and I am teaching out of the library.


Faculty of American Academy of Innovation touring the school; August 2016.

For our first two weeks we met as faculty to prepare and plan. We revised the school’s vision and mission statements. Here are the new ones:

The Vision of American Academy of Innovation is to empower the individual mind to improve the world.

Our mission statement:innovation-defl-a

The American Academy of Innovation combines academic fundamentals; career, technology, and 21st Century skills with international and community partnerships through project-based learning to ignite an innovative mindset within the individual and society.

I most like that our overall goals are to ignite an innovative mindset and to empower the individual to improve the world. I have attended many educator conference sessions on Problem-Based Learning (PBL), so I volunteered to share what I’ve learned with the rest of the faculty and to go through the eight characteristics of PBL, working through a potential large-scale problem as an example. I chose an expedition to Mars (which I’ve used as an example all summer at meetings for potential parents and students). Other teachers volunteered to share their expertise, so we trained each other. Scott also brought in some experts from other charter schools to talk about how we will implement special education and organizational culture. We took time to plan out what our first few days would be like as we started training our new students toward project/problem-based learning.


Lobby of American Academy of Innovation; August 2016. We still had much work to do putting together tables, chairs, desks, and filing cabinets.

In addition to holding daily meetings, we helped to put together chairs, desks, filing cabinets, and other furniture. Parents and students came in to help, and by the time the first two weeks were over, the school was shaping up and ready for occupancy.


AAI students meeting in our gym for introductions on the first day of school; August 31, 2016.

On August 29, we held our first day with students at the school. These first two days were to be an orientation to get the students excited about being here and help them get to know us and each other. Some had come from neighborhood schools and knew each other before, but some had come from charter schools or homeschooling. We met in our new gymnasium, and discovered immediately that the acoustics in there are terrible. It is basically a hollow concrete shell, so sound bounces all over the place and the small portable PA system wasn’t up to the job. After introducing the staff, we divided the students into groups and had them rotate through four sessions each day for the first two days.


Marble rolling group activity. Students use the pool noodles as channels to roll marbles from a starting line into a bucket. It takes teamwork and problem-solving skills.

My groups were about problem solving. Our first day I did the activity of using swimming noodles cut in half to roll marbles from a starting point into a bucket. As the noodles were short, they had to develop teamwork to move the marble along without dropping it. It was interesting to see leadership beginning to emerge from some of the students. Most of the small groups were eventually successful. It was a lot of fun.


Rolling marbles into a bucket as a group problem-solving activity.

Our second day, I ran an activity to make a simple paper helicopter based on Da Vinci’s helix machine. Students were asked to use inquiry to vary the shape of the basic helicopter and try different things. After experimenting and testing in a classroom, I had them drop the helicopters off our balcony in the main lobby and tried to photograph and videotape the results.


Testing our paper helicopters. What you get depends on what you’re testing.

Other groups toured the school, took polls for what our new mascot and school colors would be, and many other things. Overall I think we managed to convey a sense of excitement, innovation, and inquiry to the students.


Making marbled paper. Oil paints are diluted with mineral spirits, then dropped into a metal pan with an inch of water in them. The oil/spirits mixture floats on top and can be lifted off by lying a piece of sketch paper on top.

On Wednesday, August 31 we held our first regular classes. We have four periods per day on an A-B schedule; each class is 90 minutes long. I’m used to 70 minutes, so I have to pace myself. Our school day starts at 8:30 and ends at 3:30 with 50-minute lunches, so it is a longer day than I’m used to. My schedule for A days is to teach 3D Modeling during first period to about 25 students (good numbers – I’ve been talking this up all summer). We didn’t have computers to work with at first, so I had to do preparatory things such as going through Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain activities and teaching orthographic and perspective drawing skills. Second period I have STEAM it Up, with only eight students (students didn’t quite understand what this class would be about, but that’s OK – a smaller group will be more mobile and experimental). My third period class is chemistry, again a challenge to begin with since I had an empty room and no sinks or lab stations. I started with six demonstrations using household chemicals and had them make observations. I had 12 students but this has grown to 16. My 4th period class is 8th Grade Science to about 20 students. I decided since the new SEEd standards are being implemented fully next year, we might as well implement them now at AAI. We created marbled paper on the first day.


Astronomy activity to determine the correct order of levels of magnitude in the universe. It starts with multiverse at the top and ends at quarks at the bottom.

On B days (Tuesdays, Thursdays, and alternating Fridays) I have the following schedule: First period (B1) is astronomy to 7-8 grades. I began with my scale of the universe activity to arrange strips of paper in the right order from largest to smallest scale. This helps me see what they already know visually while providing a setting for the class. Second period is Innovation Design, basically my MYP Design class again for 7-8 grade students. We began with the bridge building activity that I modified from Wendi Lawrence’s spaghetti tower design challenge. Even with 90-minute classes, the student groups didn’t get as far as I would have liked, with only one truly successful group. I can see we have some work here, partly because the students don’t know each other and aren’t used to working together. My B3 class is 8th grade science again, and then I had a prep period B4.


The big sit down: all our students lined up, then sat down using the student behind as a chair. I kind of worked . . .

Part way into September, one of our teachers, who is from China, found out he had a conflict with his Visa (he had not renewed it), and so was unable to work for the rest of the semester. We found substitute math teachers for his math classes, but no one to fill in for his two computer science classes. I volunteered to give up my prep on B4 to teach the computer science class. It has been a challenge teaching straight through every day without a prep period, especially trying to stay up on grades. Because of our lack of computers, we had to have the students pair up. He started with Scratch, so I was able to transition the students over to my own way of doing things without totally replacing his structure. I also want to implement using AppLab after Scratch, then move on to Python.


Bridge building design challenge for my Innovation Design class. They must span 12 inches and make a bridge strong enough for a Matchbox car to be pushed across. They are given 30 pieces of spaghetti, 10 small gumdrops, and one sheet of paper.

When you add to this that I now have a 45-minute one way commute it can be exhausting. Much of my after school time has been spent in weekly faculty meetings or designing my science lab or putting together the order for initial equipment, lab supplies, and chemicals. We purchased 27 Dell laptop computers, so I’ve also needed to spend time getting software installed including Daz3D Bryce, Stellarium, Gimp, Sculptris, Blender, and others as well as getting the 3D printer up and running. I come home and crash each evening. But slowly, day-by-day, we are making progress and the students are beginning to develop 21st Century skills for collaboration, communication, and creativity. It was a rocky start, but we are almost ready to implement the Big Project.


Our school was still under construction during the teacher planning weeks in August, but by the time students started we were ready. Except for my science lab, which was completed in November.

We identified four possible Big Projects as a faculty and had the students vote on which one they preferred. My descriptions were as neutral as possible because I didn’t want to be accused of influencing the vote. Except, of course, I may have sweetened the well by using an example of a Mars expedition during our summer meetings. The vote was to do a Mars expedition or Mars exploration theme for our project. I will report on this more in my http://Spacedoutclassroom.com blog.


My science lab at the beginning of the school year. A white board and projector, but that’s about all. It looks much nicer now!

I’ve never worked so hard, and my health is probably suffering as a result. I’m not as young as I once was, and some days I truly feel it, but it has been an incredible ride so far. Over Winter Break I will be reporting on all that we have done in my classes on my two blog sites, so stay tuned.


My 3D students on the first day of school. By this time we had chairs, but no tables or desks. So we handed out clipboards to each student. Here they are doing an drawing lesson where they turn a photograph upside down and draw what they see instead of drawing a face. They do a better job this way.

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Walden HS fall 2015

Walden School of Liberal Arts; Fall 2015.

In 2010, I was looking for a teaching job after taking a year off to work on business profile videos. The video projects had been fun and rewarding, but not lucrative, and I missed being in the classroom. I looked through the usual ads, and then the unusual ones, and found a teaching job description on Craig’s List for a local charter school. It was named Walden School of Liberal Arts, and I had passed it many times without realizing it was a school. I’d thought it was a retirement home.

I started teaching science and technology classes that fall. I decided to teach there for five years and give my best shot at implementing integrated STEAM education and project-based learning.

Walden Elem-MS fall 2015

Walden School of Liberal Arts elementary and middle school building; Fall 2015.

Now, six years later and after many successful student projects, I am leaving Walden to teach at a new charter school in Salt Lake Valley. This hasn’t been an easy decision. I have come to truly appreciate the students and the other teachers at Walden and the freedom I’ve had to experiment. The projects I’ve described in this blog would never have happened at a more traditional public school. I’ve been able to train up a cadre of students who now have excellent STEAM skills and are capable of accomplishing great things. But I have to look at what my goals were for coming here, and I can honestly say I’ve done what I set out to do. There have been obstacles to overcome, but these limits have forced me to be more creative and have probably helped, not hindered.

South Fork

Walden School’s 2016 graduation was held at a ranch in South Fork of Provo Canyon.

I was invited to speak at our 2016 graduation, and I chose the topic of “Dare Mighty Things” based on the famous speak by Teddy Roosevelt entitled “The Man in the Arena.” It was definitely bittersweet to be saying goodbye to the school as well as to the students that I’ve worked with for six years.

Mighty things sign

A sign in the lobby of the Administration Building 180 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; March 2016.

My New School:

My new school, American Academy of Innovation, is built on the model of students as innovators, creators, makers, and inventors. It will follow a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) structure and include international and local business and university collaborations and career and technical education as well as STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) education. It should be the ideal situation to implement and perfect the projects I already pioneered at Walden, in an environment that will be more suited to cross-curricular integration. I will also be receiving a substantial pay raise, which certainly helps. It is a brand new school, and I will get in on the ground floor of establishing a culture of innovation and creativity, of academic excellence, and scientific inquiry.

AAI 3D logo

Logo for American Academy of Innovation. I created this 3D animated version for a video I created in June to explain the school’s name.

For the last two weeks we have been meeting daily as a new faculty, deciding on the details of our vision, mission statement, principles and core values, policies, etc. I’ve gotten to know the other teachers, and they are as talented and creative a group of educators as I have ever worked with. We had an official open house in the new school on Aug. 18, and I met many of the parents and students I will be teaching. If this is any indication, it will be an amazing year.

AAI under construction

American Academy of Innovation under construction; July 2016.

I will be teaching chemistry again (which I did not teach this last year as I was asked to teach the new IB Design courses instead). I will also have an elective course called STEAM it Up, which will basically be to take all the fun stuff I’ve done in my Wintersession and Chemistry classes from the STEM-Arts Alliance grants and turn it into a full semester class to explore the integration of arts and history with STEM. It will be a creative, making, totally project-based class. I will recreate and improve several of the projects we did two years ago, including making homemade iron-gall ink, experimenting with natural dyes to make tie-dyed shirts, creating marbled end paper and Shrinky-dinks, designing jewelry from etched and corroded copper and brass, building Steampunk costumes and sculptures, etc. I hope to add a few more projects, such as making blueprint T-shirts; collecting, polishing, and setting minerals to make jewelry; and others. As I have done before (but not as often as I had hoped at Walden), I will establish an end-of-year STEAM Showcase where students will display their work, give mini-lessons, and this time even have a fashion show to let parents see the costumes, shirts, and jewelry they will make.

Since PBL requires students to present and demonstrate their learning to an audience as a summative assessment, it fits right in with my plans. And this time I anticipate getting other teachers involved, such as art, history, and English as my students also create posters, draw illustrations, program games, and write lessons, scripts, and blog posts. Because I haven’t been teaching chemistry actively this last year, I haven’t been keeping this blog site up to data; now you will see many more student contributions and more frequent posts.

I also plan to move ever more to a flipped classroom model. Our periods will be 80 minutes long, and we are expected to only use the first 20-30 minutes for direct instruction and content; the remaining 50-60 minutes are for students to collaborate and build projects that solve the problems we pose. As to how many problems we will present in a year and what those problems will be, we’ll decide that in the next two weeks.

Washington Monument

Washington Monument; March 2016.

Plans A Through E:

Going back to teaching this coming year wasn’t my first choice. I had several tiers of plans in place, and returning to teaching was Plan D. Plan A was to be chosen as an Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow and spend this next year working for one of the Federal agencies in Washington, D.C. I applied this last fall and made it to the semi-finals round, which meant being flown to D.C. for three days of tours and interviews in early March. I interviewed with NASA, the National Science Foundation (a computer science initiative), and the Department of Energy. I was not selected, even though I thought two of the three interviews went very well. So scratch Plan A.

Me by Library of Congress

David Black in front of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.; March 2016.

Plan B was to go back to graduate school and fulfill a PhD in Science Education. I took the GRE in April and was accepted into the STEM Education PhD program at the University of Kentucky, but because of my late application, no more research/teaching fellowships were available. I am barely scraping by with my current teaching salary (combined with some awards and video projects on the side), so I do not have the money to move to Kentucky now. I have asked for a one-year deferment, and have accepted the job at American Academy of Innovation where I can save up enough money to move to Kentucky next summer. Or, if AAI works out well, I will simply stay there. It’s a matter of either doing Problem-Based Learning or learning about Problem-Based Learning; I’ve always preferred to actually do something.

Air and Space mural

Mural inside the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.; March 2016. Our hotel was the Holiday Inn just one block south of this museum, so of course I spent some time there, as always.

The Return of The Elusive Atom:

By the way, Plan C was to leave classroom teaching and start up an educational content design firm. I’ve wanted to do this for years, and even attempted it in 2009-2010 when I did business videos for clients. There are a series of Ed Tech start-up programs around the country called Accelerators, where chosen education companies are provided office space and seed money to get their product ready for marketing, then investors provide start-up venture capital to finance the new company in exchange for a piece of the action. One of these Accelerators is in Salt Lake City, and it looks promising. Certainly I have enough ideas. The problem is getting them into a finished enough form to apply to the Ed Tech Accelerator program, then finding the time for 12 weeks to solely focus on my products. I also need to have a partner or partners, which is another problem. So far, it’s just been me. But in anticipation of this possibility, I have finally completed editing the front of my old Elusive Atom poster that has sat in limbo on my computer for years. I started it in 1995. I finished the hand painted version in 2002. And this summer I finally completed fixing the digital version. It looks good. Now I need to do the backside text and line art, and I’m ready to print out sample copies to market.

EA poster small

Finished front of the Elusive Atom poster. Now I need to work on the back side, mini-posters, and timeline, then print and market it.

While at the STEM Forum and Expo in Denver, I talked with the new product managers from both Flinn and Nasco, and will try to work with them to make the poster a reality. I also plan to repurpose the illustrations into a timeline and a series of mini-posters on each scientist from the poster, such as Mendeleev or Jabir Ibn Hayyan. I found it fun to get into Photoshop deeply again.

Writing a Novella:

Plan E is a long shot, but something I’m quite proud of. I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing science fiction, and have several good (I think, anyway) ideas. I read last summer that Tor Publishing is starting an initiative to look for new authors to write novellas for their line of e-books. They announced in May that a new round of stories would be accepted, completely unsolicited, on the topics of cyber punk, future thriller, time travel, and other science fiction tropes (not fantasy this time). That’s my chance! So I spent two solid weeks in June working on writing up a book I’ve wanted to do since at least 1995. It’s called Dead Stone Lions, and I had thought about the plot for years. It hits about all of their possible subgenres. I took a couple of days to brainstorm and outline, then started writing. Once I got into it a chapter or two, the writing took on a life of its own. Weird things started happening – new characters appeared, or old characters did unexpected things, and I had no idea where these threads would lead. Then later in the book, these plot points somehow circled back around and became significant, when I hadn’t planned it that way at all. Like the self-aware computer called ISAAC (after Isaac Asimov, for two important reasons) or the protagonist’s brother’s subplot.

The deadline was the end of June, and I finished the first draft late in the evening of June 30th. It came in at 41,580 words, and I had to pare it down to under 40,000 to make Tor’s definition of a novella. So I pared and compressed and edited for several more hours, finally posting the story at about 5:00 am on July 1 at 39,979 words. I was worried that I might be too late, but the submission site was still up. I didn’t dare check for two months what the status of my submission was, because it was such an accomplishment to just get it done. I know it needs further editing but I’ve let it go for two months on purpose to let the ideas ferment a bit longer, then come back with fresh eyes. However, last Thursday (Aug. 25) I received a short e-mail from Tor.com saying that my novella “did not meet their needs.” Well, that’s not a surprise. So now I am a rejected first-time writer. I certainly am in good company.

I hope to announce some day that I am a published author, both for science fact and educational pedagogy, and for science fiction. Some day, once I’ve gotten a few sales under my belt, I hope to tackle a series of books called Trinum Magicum, about a science teacher who discovers the third use of the Philosopher’s Stone. It will bring in all the research I did at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in 2009, when the plot for this series first started percolating in my brain.

DOE seal

The seal of the Department of Energy. I spent two days in their building interviewing for three possible Einstein Fellowships, but didn’t get selected for any. So much for Plan A . . .

The End of a Dry Spell:

I had quite a dry spell this last year, applying for several STEM related awards but receiving none. The failure of Plan A was just the last in a long line of unsuccessful applications. But things have picked up since. In May, I found out I was selected by the U.S. Department of State as a Teacher for Global Classrooms fellow, and will complete an online course this fall, then attend a training workshop in Washington, D.C. in February. I will travel with 11-12 other teachers to one of six possible countries for a 2-3 week period, beginning in late February through August 2017. We will learn about the culture of the country and their educational system. I don’t know which country yet, but this year the teachers went to Morocco, Georgia, Brazil, Senegal, India, and the Philippines. My personal choice would be Morocco – I’ve always wanted to go there since seeing Casablanca and The Road to Morocco (OK, maybe not the best representation of actual Morocco, but it was fun). I would enjoy visiting any of them.

Me with beard 2016

I decided to grow a beard over the summer. How did all the salt get into the pepper?


Then it got itchy and I decided to shave it off. Well, partially, anyway . . .

In July, I opened up a letter that had been sitting in my stack of mail and a check for $1200 fell out. Kind of a nice surprise! I have been selected as the Earth Science Teacher of the Year by the Utah Geological Association. I attended a nice luncheon several weeks ago to receive the official award, and also attended their annual picnic on August 13. The best part for me is the possible contacts this award will bring and how we can get some expert geologists involved at our school.


Some awards I have received. The Utah Geological Association Teacher of the Year Award is the one at bottom left.

I attended some professional development opportunities in June and July, including the annual Utah IT Education Conference, where I presented on 3D printing. I also attended the STEM Best Practices conference sponsored by the Utah STEM Action Center. I was able to talk with Dr. Tami Goetz a few times – she remembered me from two years ago when I attended some STEM education workshops in Salt Lake. I hope to apply for a grant from them soon. I also ran into a friend who now runs STEM partnership programs for Utah Valley University.

Denver plaza

Civic Center plaza in downtown Denver; July 2016.

July 27-29 I traveled to Denver to present three sessions at the NSTA STEM Forum and Expo. I sent in three proposals hoping one would be selected, and all three were (compared with the annual NSTA conference, where I sent in three proposals and none of them were selected). The Denver forum was very busy for me, but very rewarding. I presented to about 90 people altogether, which is the best turnout I’ve ever had for sessions. My session on 3D printing tips had at least 45 people in it. I had supper with a group of STEAM educators, which I hope will pay off in contacts and future opportunities. I could truly say, as in the song Home and Dry by Gerry Rafferty:

Denver capitol

The Colorado State Capitol Building in Denver; July 2016.

I feel tired, but I feel good,
‘Cause I’ve done everything I said I would . . .

Frisco camp

I did my trip to Denver on the cheap, camping on the way there and back and staying in the least expensive hostel I could find while in Denver. We purchased a new tent this summer and this is my camp near Frisco, Colorado.

The first week in August I took my family on vacation to visit my wife’s sister and brother, who both live in Oregon. We stayed five days on the Oregon coast, in Rockaway Beach and in Waldport. Then we took several days to explore the Columbia River Gorge and the Oregon Trail. I took many photos, saw some amazing geology and even a few grey whales.

Me at Twin Rocks

David Black at Twin Rocks near Rockaway Beach, Oregon; August 2016.

A Summary of Six Years:

Before I could start at AAI, I had to finish up and move out of Walden School of Liberal Arts. Since I had decided this would be my last year at Walden clear back in May 2015, and I wasn’t going to be teaching chemistry, I took the opportunity to move most of my chemistry materials and papers home at the start of the 2015-16 school year. I moved my astronomy materials over to the middle school since I was teaching 6th Grade Science second semester, which is mostly astronomy. I kept it all contained, so it was easy enough to take that home as well at the start of summer.

Me at Frisco Lake

David Black near Frisco, Colorado; July 2016.

Twin Rocks reflection

Twin Rocks at Rockaway Beach, Oregon; August 2016.

But my materials in the computer lab at the high school took some time. Since the building at AAI was not ready yet, and I didn’t want to have to move things home, then move them to AAI in two steps, I asked if I could wait until the very end of summer to clean out at Walden, which the director agreed to. Once I returned from my family vacation to Oregon, I spent the second week in August getting my materials cleaned out, my printouts and posters off the wall, and the iMac desktop computers cleaned off. I saved all the files I had made over six years onto a 3 TB portable hard drive.

Yaquina Lighthouse

Yaquina Head lighthouse near Newport, Oregon; August 2016.

Over the rest of the summer (and since last fall, really) I have been working on putting together a printed binder of all the projects we’ve done at Walden (and others at MATC and before). It started as a supplemental file for the Allen Distinguished Educator Award and was expanded for my trip to Washington, D.C. for the Einstein Fellowship interviews. I’ve added pages for our Deep Space Expedition to southern California in March, and filled in more pages on other projects, trips, awards, and events. I added section caption pages and tabs. There is still much more I could add, but the binder is as full as I dare make it. It came in handy as I’ve presented at open houses for AAI. In the process of creating it, I organized all my Walden work and files onto the new hard drive. I’ve needed to do this for years.

Ecola State Park view

View south from Ecola State Park, Oregon; August 2016.

The Adventure Continues:

So there you have it – catching you up on where I am. I wanted to write this summary to explain what’s been happening, but I will write more detailed posts on each of these events as I have time. My commute to AAI will be 45 minutes if I drive and 90 minutes if I take the light rail system, which I hope to do most of the time. It will give me lots of time to write these blogs and stay up on grading.

Sunset seagull 1

I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull again while on our trip to the Oregon Coast.

There is still so much to do. I need to complete the transcriptions of Dr. Graham’s interview on Greek philosophy, then revise the script and complete the movie. I have many videos from my Elements Unearthed explorations that need to be done, and educational products to design, books to write, computer programming languages to learn and computer games to create, and time gets ever shorter. This next year will be an amazing adventure. I hope you join me.

Crown Point lookout

View from Crown Point overlooking the Columbia River Gorge; August 2016.

Multnomah Falls

Multnomah Falls on the Columbia River; August 2016. We got there just before sunset on a clear day with nice lighting.

Wakeena Falls

Wakeena Falls on the Columbia River; August 2016.

Heceta Head

Heceta Head lighthouse on the Oregon Coast; August 2016.

Sunset Seagull 2

Another seagull at sunset, this one at the beach near Waldport, Oregon; August 2016.

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Rabbitbrush, Ericameria nauseosa. The flowers make an excellent yellow dye.

Rabbitbrush, Ericameria nauseosa. The flowers make an excellent yellow dye.

Last September, in a conversation with our biology teacher, I learned that common rabbit brush makes an excellent yellow dye for natural fabrics. It was used by Native Americans and early pioneers to dye cotton, linen, and wool. I grew up thinking of rabbit brush as a useless scrub brush that grew in unused corners on our farm where the soil had high alkali or clay or low drainage. It is often seen along road cuts and other areas where the soil has been removed or disturbed, and is one of the first plants to colonize bare soil.

Rabbitbrush grows in poor soils and is one of the first plants to colonize disturbed areas.

Rabbitbrush grows in poor soils and is one of the first plants to colonize disturbed areas.

Intrigued by our conversation, I did some research. Its Latin name is Ericameria nauseosa for good reason: up close, the blossoms smell rather nauseating. In the early fall, it blooms with tight bundles of bright yellow flowers that can be steeped in boiling water and used for dye. I also found that it contains around 6% latex rubber in its stems and leaves to protect it from dehydrating. If a commercial method could be devised to extract the latex economically, it would be a valuable plant to grow and harvest. I had no idea.

Students prepare a dye bath of sunflower petals.

Students prepare a dye bath of sunflower petals.

I decided to try rabbit brush dye in my chemistry class. My course schedule for chemistry is already overflowing with more activities and labs than I can accommodate in our limited classroom time. To add a new activity would mean giving something else up. So adding a fabric dyeing lab would only be possible if I used the activity to fulfill more than one objective. I decided it would make a great inquiry lab to introduce the scientific method and meet Utah’s Intended Learning Outcome objectives. These ILOs include teaching the history and nature of science and the scientific method across all science courses.

Cloth soaking in a boiling dye bath made of rabbitbrush blossoms.

Cloth soaking in a boiling dye bath made of rabbitbrush blossoms.

I already had a number of large pieces of undyed fabric, including cotton, linen, silk, and polyester. I scrounged or ordered other types of dyestuffs, including walnut shells and cochineal. I cut the fabric into small swatches and purchased washing soda (sodium carbonate), cream of tartar, and other possible mordants. I also brought in a number of large pots from home.

Dye bath made from walnut shells. The original bath was the dark brown color seen with the shells, but it was accidentally thrown out. The second attempt was lighter.

Dye bath made from walnut shells. The original bath was the dark brown color seen with the shells, but it was accidentally thrown out. The second attempt was lighter.

On the first day of the activity, I introduced the process of science and the idea of variables and how to create an experimental design to control them. We then took a short field trip to a road embankment about ¼ mile from Walden School where a good stand of rabbit brush was growing. We collected several bags full of yellow blossoms. The students then divided into lab teams and designed their own experiments.

Samples of cochineal dye solutions. Cochineal is a sessile insect that lives on prickly pear cactus in Mexico and South America. It is collected, dried, and crushed to make carmine dye.

Samples of cochineal dye solutions. Cochineal is a sessile insect that lives on prickly pear cactus in Mexico and South America. It is collected, dried, and crushed to make carmine dye.

We boiled the rabbit brush blossoms, some black-eyed susan petals we collected along the way (commonly called sunflowers in Utah), and walnut shells in water. The cochineal shells were ground up in a mortar and pestle, releasing a deep burgundy liquid (carminic acid). The group that tested cochineal added varying amounts of tartaric acid to stabilize the color and create a brighter red. Each group tested both synthetic and natural fibers. Some groups tested mordants, which set the color by opening up the fabric fibers. Some groups tested different times in the dye bath, or different temperatures. In each case, they tried to test one variable and keep all the others constant.

Solutions of cochineal (carmine) dye. To create the different hues of red, tartaric acid was added.

Solutions of cochineal (carmine) dye. To create the different hues of red, tartaric acid was added.

The designing, preparation, boiling, and dyeing was done on our second day. It was a Friday before a long weekend, and we discovered an unanticipated variable. Leaving the cloth in the dye baths over the weekend resulted in mold growing in the water and on the cloth. One group testing the walnut shells accidentally dumped out their dye bath, which was a rich, deep brown. They had to start over using the same walnut shells, and the second time the color was much weaker. All of these problems and their effects were noted in the students’ lab notebooks.

The sunflower (Black-eyed Susan) dye bath turned brown when boiled. It also grew mold over the weekend.

The sunflower (Black-eyed Susan) dye bath turned brown when boiled. It also grew mold over the weekend.

After dyeing, we rinsed and dried the cloth swatches. One team took their swatches home and washed half of them several time in order to test the color fastness. In order to get numeric data that could be analyzed statistically, we compared the color by scanning the dried swatches into a computer and using the Eyedropper tool in Adobe Photoshop to click on three areas of each swatch, then record the RGB values and average them per swatch. The HSB values (Hue, Saturation, and Brightness) were also compared.

Finished swatches after dyeing and drying. The pink is cochineal, yellow is rabbitbrush, even tan is walnut, and uneven tan is sunflowers. Undyed cloth is also shown for a control.

Finished swatches after dyeing and drying. The pink is cochineal, yellow is rabbitbrush, even tan is walnut, and uneven tan is sunflowers. Undyed cloth is also shown for a control.

The students drew their own conclusions based on the variables they were controlling and wrote up the results in their lab books, answering a series of questions I gave them to help them consider what they had done. By the time we finished, we had spent about five days of class time, which was quite an investment but well worth it. We followed up by discussing how dyes are done commercially, other types of natural dyes such as indigo and madder root, and the invention of aniline dyes derived from coal tar such as Sir William Henry Perkin’s discovery of mauve dye in 1856.

William Henry Perkin, who discovered the first synthetic aniline dye (mauveine) at age 18 in 1856.

William Henry Perkin, who discovered the first synthetic aniline dye (mauveine) at age 18 in 1856.

Some notes for improving the lab for next time: I need to make sure we don’t leave the dyes over the weekend, and I want to use wool as a natural fiber in addition to cotton, linen, and silk. I tried looking for undyed and untreated wool, but the hobby stores only carry the mostly synthetic brands that are dyed white. Next time I will have to see if any of my students have access to natural wool yarn, or order it directly. I would like to dye untreated yarn in each color and crochet hats or scarves from it. I don’t want to mess with indigo, as that is quite a process, but I will order some madder root and other natural dyes.

A letter from William Henry Perkin, Jr. and  sample of silk cloth dyed with mauveine, the first aniline dye made from coal tar derivatives. It is a much brighter color than we usually associate with mauve today.

A letter from William Henry Perkin, Jr. and sample of silk cloth dyed with mauveine, the first aniline dye made from coal tar derivatives. It is a much brighter color than we usually associate with mauve today.

Finally, I would like to find a way to stabilize the dyes (perhaps by adding vinegar, etc.) so that mold won’t grow, then use the natural dyes for tie-dyed shirts. It would also be fun to make a dye out of purple cabbage juice, soak a cotton shirt in it, then treat it with squirt bottles containing mild acids and bases to change the color of the fabric like a pH strip, then set the colors by heat treating.

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Cannonball trajectories. Once the ball leaves the cannon's muzzle, it is on a ballistic path.

Cannonball trajectories. Once the ball leaves the cannon’s muzzle, it is on a ballistic path.

or How People Choose Their Own Career Paths

In physics, a ballistic object is one that is given an initial push (through gunpowder or some other explosion) and then follows a path dependent on the initial velocity and direction of the canon or gun. A ballistic missile gets initial thrust from a rocket, but once the rocket is spent, the missile must follow the path the rocket set it on as it rises and falls back to Earth.

People can choose their own paths, but in some ways their paths are ballistic, determined by choices they made as far back as Middle School and High School. Once on a particular career path, it is hard to change.

I’ve been thinking about these ideas over the last week. Here at Walden School, we are transitioning to become an International Baccalaureate school, and we have initiated the Middle Years Programme this year in our high school. We have begun using ManageBac, a grading program developed for IB schools, and it has been difficult learning how to use it and the philosophy behind it.

Grades in ManageBac are determined solely by summative, not formative assignments, and each summative assignment is based on up to four criteria depending on the category of class it is. My classes are either Science or Design courses. I’ve had a bit of a learning curve to figure all this out, and so have my students. In one class, for a summative essay assignment, only 6 out of 22 students actually turned in the assignment so far.

It got me thinking: if a student chooses not to work hard in school (something that is foreign to my personality), then what trajectory are they setting themselves on and how hard will it be later to change their path?

As a science and design teacher I had to create a diagram to illustrate my thoughts. This led to a Powerpoint slideshow on the ideas of career paths and choices, which I’ve shown to the class with only six assignments turned in. I hope it dashed a bit of cold water in their faces and woke them up. They seem to have no clue what the consequences of their choices will be, so this was a “Come to Jesus” discussion.

Chart 1:  The pathway of gradual and steady effort leading to high-status careers.

Chart 1: The pathway of gradual and steady effort leading to high-status careers.

Here are my thoughts:

I graphed time as a horizontal axis and divided it into sections for the major time periods of a person’s life, including Elementary School, Middle School, High School, Young Adult, Middle Age, Maturity (I’m not going to call it “Elderly” – next year I’ll be 55 and able to get those “Senior” discounts at some stores. That’s a bit hard to accept. I don’t feel “elderly” quite yet), and Retirement.

The vertical axis is effort, or the amount of work needed to reach a particular career outcome. The slope of our pathways represents work or effort over time (the physics teacher in me has to call them Power Curves). The steeper the slope, the more power is needed and the harder the pathway is to achieve. The vertical axis for career outcomes also corresponds with the level of personal choice available, the social status of the career, and usually the pay levels achieved.

The first graph represents the standard power curve or personal trajectory that is most rewarded in our society: to work hard in middle and high school, go on to college (probably with a scholarship), get a four year degree, go on to graduate school, find a job in a high-status profession, and after a relatively few years of experience, quickly work one’s way to the more rewarding outcomes. Some choose not to go on to graduate school or go through a master’s degree, and for them there are still many choices of great professions. Teachers are in this category.

Chart 2: Mid-level career paths. Those not choosing college may go to technical schools. If they choose to go to college later, there are barriers to overcome and a steep road.

Chart 2: Mid-level career paths. Those not choosing college may go to technical schools. If they choose to go to college later, there are barriers to overcome and a steep road.

The second chart represents several middle-level career paths. For students who’s trajectory takes them through high school with only moderate grades and no scholarship options, they will have to go out and find a job and earn enough money to pay their own way if they choose to climb up to college. They may have to attend a community or junior college because top universities won’t admit them. They will encounter several barriers (the black curves), which include having to work and perhaps support a family while also going to college. They may not have the prerequisite classes or knowledge, and may need to take remedial courses such as the infamous Math 1050. It is required of all Utah college students who didn’t take higher-level math in high school, and is a bear of a class. It is deliberately hard in order to weed out those who are not serious about returning to school. I’ve known several middle-aged women who have been divorced and never completed their college education who now want to go back to school to become nurses or other careers, and are finding this one math class to be a huge barrier. It is not impossible to make this climb, but many who want to never do.

It is so much easier just to work hard and take as many high-level classes in high school as possible, while it’s free and you don’t have all these other demands on your time. Some students encounter barriers while still in middle or high school, including poverty, poor schools, an unsupportive family culture, or learning disabilities of various sorts. Some students use these barriers as crutches or excuses for not finishing high school. Yet there are so many programs available to help these students out if they choose to rise above these barriers.

Even disabilities should not be much of a barrier. We all have weaknesses and difficulties in one area or another, as well as strengths, and the key is to use one’s strengths to compensate for the disabilities. When I look at myself using Howard Gardner’s Seven Intelligences theory, I can say that I do OK on six out of the seven areas. But in one, I would be considered disabled: the area of kinesthetic intelligence. I am awkward, clumsy, and lack any type of natural grace. I can barely run, I can’t jump, and I can’t dribble a basketball even standing still. I’ve also been through a serious accident when I was young that left my right leg 1½ inches shorter than my left. It tires easily. I have had to accept that I will never run a marathon, no matter how hard I might want to or how hard I practice. That also goes for playing professional basketball.

The BYU Ballroom Dance team competing in Blackpool. No, I am not one of them. But I did take ballroom dance classes at BYU.

The BYU Ballroom Dance team competing in Blackpool, England. No, I am not one of them. But I did take ballroom dance classes at BYU.

Does that mean I get to make excuses and never try to do anything that requires physical coordination? Not at all. I went to Brigham Young University for my undergraduate degree, and I wanted very much to learn how to ballroom dance. It was a popular class, and we had the world champion ballroom dance team, so the instructors were amazing. But there was that problem of having no natural grace. However, I can keep time (I’m pretty good at music) and I can memorize complex sequences of dance steps. I understand the physics behind the steps, I can learn how to lead, and I can practice and practice, so I can use my strengths to overcome most of my weaknesses. Now I’m not going to say I made the ballroom dance team – that was never my desire. But I did manage to get good grades through four ballroom dance classes, including the upper division classes (although I never did master the samba). I took two classes from Lee Wakefield himself, and I even received a medal at the Medals Ball, where we had to dance a routine with a partner. That little medal means more to me than many of my academic honors, because it was so much harder to earn. And, by the way, I met my wife by asking her to dance the waltz with me.

The barriers that exist for someone gaining a high school diploma are at least partially illusory. Yes, poverty, family culture, poor schools, and a host of other social problems make it difficult for far too many students to get a high school education. But not impossible. I fully support all efforts to remove these barriers; it is one of the major reasons for having governments: to create equal opportunities for all and to secure our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Utah College of Applied Technology logo

Utah College of Applied Technology logo

If a regular four-year college isn’t in the cards, there are other options. In my state, we have UCAT, the Utah College of Applied Technology. It has about ten campuses statewide, and I used to teach digital media classes at Mountainland Applied Technology College, one of the largest campuses in the system. It acts as a magnet school for Career and Technical Education (CTE). Students who are still in high school (as well as adults) can travel to MATC for three hours each day to learn technical careers, such as Nursing or Dental Assistant, EMT, CDL, graphic design, computer networking/IT, welding, cosmetology, and a host of other occupations. It’s even possible, if they really apply themselves, to graduate from high school with a college associate degree in hand. People who go this route (the purple pathway) find there way to technical careers that have excellent pay and make a strong contribution to society.

Eventually, some of those who went the technical career route choose to work towards a management or high-end professional career. This usually means going back to school at night or online while still working, as they are likely to be in middle age by now and supporting a family. They have barriers to overcome and a steep learning curve to follow. It is a possible, although difficult, option. I represent this by the yellow paths.

It used to be possible for people with only a high school education to find decent jobs in manufacturing, mining, construction, or many other so-called “blue-collar” occupations that require skilled labor, work experience, and on-the-job training. With many of these jobs unionized, they were ensured a good wage and solid career path. Just as I graduated from high school, several industries built plants in the area of my school. A large coal-fired power plant was built as well as a lime mine and refinery, among several others. Quite a few of my classmates were able to secure work in these industries without going on to college or outside training programs. They don’t have the education to move up to management, but they’re doing all right. We had a high school reunion about a year ago, and I asked several of these classmates how things were going for them, and they gave an identical answer: “I’m livin’ the good life!” It took some further questions to determine what they meant, which was they earned enough to go on the occasional vacation out of state, and they will have enough to retire in another ten years or so and buy a motor home to see the country in. And they’re right. This is the good life for many people. Their path is represented by magenta.

There’s just one catch. Many of these blue-collar jobs are disappearing. This is partially due to off-shoring and outsourcing of manufacturing and service jobs to China, India, and elsewhere. It is also because many of these jobs are becoming more technical. For example, one of my students who actually did turn in the essay paper discussed his plan for staying competitive in a flattened world economy. He plans to become a car mechanic, and recognizes he will need some training, because cars now run on computer systems for injecting fuel and require a computer system to diagnose what’s wrong with them.

Geneva Steel Plant in Vineyard, Utah circa 2005, shortly before demolition began.

Geneva Steel Plant in Vineyard, Utah circa 2005, shortly before demolition began.

As blue-collar jobs disappear here, those who held them can move up to technical careers with additional training. We had a large steel plant here in Utah Valley called Geneva Steel, part of U. S. Steel Corporation. It was built here during World War II because of the good railroad transportation, closeness to coal, and the iron mines in southern Utah. It employed thousands of people in this valley for many years, paying good wages. Then in the 1980s U.S. Steel fell on hard times (partly due to aging machinery and partly due to antiquated processes and competition from Japan and China), and Geneva Steel was sold in 1987 to a consortium of Utah Valley businessmen and employees, led by Chris and Joseph Cannon. They tried to maintain jobs as long as possible, but they simply couldn’t compete. The plant shut down for good in 2002. Since, then the entire mill has been torn down. I used to drive past the plant on my way to MATC, and it was amazing how quickly a huge steel mill (the largest one in the western United States) became an empty field. The remaining equipment was sold to a Chinese steel firm, and only one large blast furnace bucket remained, plus a great deal of ground contamination. The thousands of employees had to retire or find jobs elsewhere, and some of them came to MATC for retraining. As I observed their struggles, I found that it’s not easy going from a blue-collar to a white-collar job.

What of those students who barely manage to graduate from high school or who have to earn a GED? The rise to college becomes very difficult and steep because they have never learned how to learn. If they don’t receive additional education or training, then their options are limited. Generally they find their way into service-oriented jobs (the red pathway) that have limited room for advancement. They also have a long career, over 40 years, working long hours to stay afloat at dead-end jobs. These are hard jobs to have, requiring them to work as unskilled laborers or stand for long hours or work outside in the cold or heat. They have to work so much harder in the long run than their classmates who worked a bit harder in high school and had a higher trajectory as a result. It’s not to say people with a higher trajectory don’t occasionally work at service jobs – I’ve certainly done my share of them during summers. But I did them by choice, because I wanted to pick up some extra money, and now I choose not to work those jobs at all. I can make more money staying home and writing grants, because I’ve learned how to write. I don’t have to work standing all night on an assembly line.

Chart 3: All Career Paths

Chart 3: All Career Paths. Students who graduate high school only used to be able to find skilled labor jobs such as construction or manufacturing. Those who do not are generally left with unskilled labor or service jobs. Those who do not graduate have even fewer options.

Finally, there are those who do not graduate from high school or earn a GED, for whatever reason (the orange path). They’ll find it difficult to do anything but the most menial of unskilled labor, and they will find steep competition from non-English speaking immigrants and others who have traditionally filled these jobs. They often pay less than minimum wage, which makes it impossible to support a family without working 2-3 jobs. They must rely on welfare or public assistance to survive.

Only a few manage to rise above these limited options, and the pathway is extremely steep the longer they wait. Those that are unable or unwilling to take that path and put in the effort but who still want to earn money find themselves looking for shortcuts such as turning to crime. Instead of being productive members of society, they become a drain upon it.

Chart 4: Retirement Age for Various Career Paths.

Chart 4: Retirement Age for Various Career Paths.

One final note: the higher the person’s trajectory (based on the choices they make in high school), the sooner they can retire and the better their retirement is likely to be. The cyan line indicates retirement age, and if you have made your money early you can retire at 45 and go have fun, see the world, and even work a second career if you want. The options are unlimited. In a dead-end service job, you may not have any retirement except Social Security. Certainly not enough to live “the good life.” You’ll find limits all around you, limits you put there yourself because of the choices you made in high school and beyond, or believed someone else when they tried to put limits on you.

I don’t know how much this sank into my students’ consciousness. I gave them a deadline for Friday at 3:00 to get all their make-up work in. A few retook tests, but no one else turned in the essay project. Sigh. I told them up front that this was the most important thing I could ever teach them. One of them, when questioned, said he knew he should be thinking more about these things, but just didn’t feel like it. Apparently, what we really need in our education system is to train students to be more responsible. But that’s a battle for another day.

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Set up for the stop-motion animation activity. You will need a solid tripod, a black-topped table with good lighting, and rulers to mark the edges of the stage area (camera field of view).

Set up for the stop-motion animation activity. You will need a solid tripod, a black-topped table with good lighting, and rulers to mark the edges of the stage area (camera field of view).

As part of the STEM-Arts Alliance program I’ve initiated at Walden School of Liberal Arts, I am always trying to find activities in my science classes that can integrate art, history, and/or technology. At the NSTA national conference in San Antonio in 2013, I attended a session by Dan Ratliffe from the Breck School in Minneapolis on using stop-motion animation techniques to model a chemical reaction, in this case the burning of methane. He showed how to set up a stage, use student groups and manipulatives, and how to show how energy is absorbed (activation energy) to start the reaction and how energy is released. He uses it in his 6th grade science class, but I’ve adapted the lesson for use in higher level science classes such as chemistry or physics or astronomy.

Animation stage (marked with rulers). Since the camera couldn't point straight down, the stage is a trapezoid. On the large sheet of paper is our storyboard/plan.

Animation stage (marked with rulers). Since the camera couldn’t point straight down, the stage is a trapezoid. On the large sheet of paper is our storyboard/plan.

On Jan, 31 this year, I needed to make one of these animations for a demonstration I was doing at the UACTE conference. My chemistry students were studying nuclear chemistry and nuclear reactions at the time, so without any warning to them, I announced we would be making an animation of the nuclear fission of Uranium-235. I had cardstock and permanent markers already in the room, and brought my camera and tripod to class. My small class of students were able to create all the drawings and labels, plan the sequence, and do the photos all in one class period plus a few minutes after school to clean up, so about 80 minutes total. It wasn’t anything too fancy, but it worked. That evening I dropped the images into Apple Final Cut Studio (setting each image to last three frames), then dropped them onto the timeline, expanded them all together so the edge of the stage wouldn’t show, and exported it. I didn’t try to add narration or sound effects, but it did the job. Then I demonstrated the process at the conference the next day.

This lesson meets standards HS-PS1-8 of the Next Generation Science Standards to model nuclear reactions as a core idea in chemistry. I have written it all up as a PDF lesson plan. I’m including the process steps here, but you can download and use the lesson plan here: Stop-Motion_Nuclear_Reaction

Objectives: By the end of the activity, students will be able to:

  1. Create storyboards and sketches showing the stages of a chemical or nuclear process;
  2. Set up a stage and move objects around from frame to frame to demonstrate the process;
  3. Edit and align sequential images in an image editing software package;
  4. Import a series of still images into video editing software and export the sequential images as a continuous animation.


An early frame for the animation. A neutron (red bead) approaches an atom of U-235.

An early frame for the animation. A neutron (red bead) approaches an atom of U-235.

Materials for each group:

Regular unlined copy paper (for storyboards)

Cardstock paper (for labels)

Marker pens or colored pencils

Balls of different sizes to represent large uranium atoms, smaller fission products, and

neutrons. You can use poker chips and tiddlywinks instead.


Clear tape

A black-topped lab bench or table with a black tablecloth

A digital camera and tripod that can look down on the table without seeing the edges

Meter sticks and smaller metric rulers

Computer with video software


The first atom of U-235 splits into Barium and Krypton plus energy and two additional neutrons.

The first atom of U-235 splits into Barium and Krypton plus energy and two additional neutrons.

Step One: Introduction

Introduce this lesson by showing your students some examples of stop-motion animation and discussing how traditional animation was drawn frame by frame on acetate sheets. Explain that they will be creating their own animations in groups.

Review the types of nuclear reactions that are most often learned in a unit on nuclear chemistry, such as the fission of Uranium-235; the fusion of hydrogen; nucleosynthesis inside a star; the conversion of a neutron to a proton, anti-electron neutrino, and beta particle through the weak nuclear force; the beta and alpha decays of various elements; the conservation and conversions of energy and matter in a nuclear reaction; etc. List these reactions on your whiteboard. Assign students to groups of 4 to 5, and have each group pick a different reaction.


The three neutrons travel on toward three more U-235 atoms.

The three neutrons travel on toward three more U-235 atoms.

Step Two: Planning the Animation and Creating the Pieces

Divide the students into groups and provide them with the materials they need. For this first period (initial 45 minutes) they will research the relevant reactions, draw out a storyboard or plan for the steps of the process, write a narration script (optional), then create the pieces they need. They can represent atoms or subatomic particles by balls or paper drawings on cardstock. If they use balls, they should create paper labels for each object. Energy can be represented in different ways, such as drawing lightning bolts or gamma rays or bursts of energy.

Give the students encouragement and suggestions as needed, but allow them to use their creativity and have fun with this activity. They may want to bring in their own props. The final storyboards and animations should be scientifically accurate and demonstrate deep knowledge of the reaction they choose as well as be aesthetically pleasing and well designed. They should also create titles and show the reactions as equations. By the end of 45 minutes they should have their plans complete and their pieces, labels, and drawings finished and cut out.

As an option, you may want each group to write up a narration script and record the narration using a microphone. If you do this, then allow for an additional class period. The final animation will have to be carefully timed to match this narration.


The three atoms of U-235 split to create new byproducts, more energy, and a total of nine neutrons.

The three atoms of U-235 split to create new byproducts, more energy, and a total of nine neutrons.

Step Three: Filming the Animation Frames

To set up the animation, a camera should be mounted on a tripod or other solid structure and placed so that its field of view encompasses a black lab bench or table topped with a black tablecloth without seeing any edges. To find out the exact area of this “stage,” use meter sticks or other straight edged objects and move them in on all four sides of the camera’s view until you can just barely see them at the edge of the view. If your camera is facing straight down, the stage will be a rectangle, but this is often difficult to achieve without making a special frame or mount for the camera. If it is on a tripod, then it will be looking at the stage at an oblique angle and the stage area will be a trapezoid. Once the stage area is set and the camera is in place, they must not be moved.

To film the frames, have one student assigned to use the camera (and not bump it or move it between frames). The other students will move the pieces. They will want to practice the process, deciding how far to move each piece between frames. A good frame rate for the final video would be 10 images per second. Since digital video plays back at 30 frames per second, this means one image will be three frames long. This means for a 10 second animation, you will need to take 100 photos. If each piece is moved too much between images, the resulting animation will be jerky and too fast. If it is moved slower, the resulting animation will be smoother but you will have to take more photos. The amount of motion between frames should be consistent or the movement will seem to speed up and slow down for no reason. Students should use a ruler to measure the distances to move objects between frames exactly. Objects such as atoms that need to stay in place for several seconds can be taped down with clear tape.

Once they get going, the group can develop a kind of rhythm. They will stand around the stage with the camera operator calling out, “Move. Clear! Move. Clear!” and taking photos as the students clear out, then move their assigned pieces as planned. A student should also be assigned as the Director to ensure the storyboard is followed and object placement is correct from frame to frame. Labels should be used for all parts, such as neutrons, atoms, energy, equations, titles, etc. When an atom is split or atoms fuse, if energy is released, it can be shown appearing and moving outward from its origin or creating a flash. Byproduct particles can then move on to collide with other objects. For example, if you are splitting U-235, then a neutron enters, collides with an atom of U-235, which splits into two products (there are several possibilities, such as Krypton-89 and Barium-144, or Xenon-143 and Strontium-90, etc.) along with two new neutrons and gamma radiation. A chain reaction can be demonstrated going through several steps. They could even show a mushroom cloud at the end.

Special effects can be created, such as blinking objects (having an object appear in one frame, then disappear in the next, and alternate – it will appear to blink or flash in the video). With a little practice you can get the timing right. You can create explosion graphics and add white or colored frames to simulate a flash of energy. If your students know how to use image software to create alpha channels, then separate images can be filmed and added with transparency to the final video as layered animations. In the end, the only important things are to keep the motion smooth and consistent, don’t bump the camera, and don’t get anyone’s hands in the photos.


The nine neutrons travel on to split nine atoms of U-235 and release even more energy and more neutrons . . . thus becoming a chain reaction that will result in a nuclear explosion if left unchecked. Labels and equations can be added as the final particles migrate off the stage.

The nine neutrons travel on to split nine atoms of U-235 and release even more energy and more neutrons . . . thus becoming a chain reaction that will result in a nuclear explosion if left unchecked. Labels and equations can be added as the final particles migrate off the stage.

Step Four: Creating the Video

The photos will need to be uploaded to the computer which has the video software. Ideally each group should have a computer capable of doing this; almost any video software including iMovie and MovieMaker will work. There are apps available for iPads or other tablet computers such as iStopMotion. As you import the images, make sure they are numbered sequentially. Most digital cameras will do this automatically.

If there was any bumping of the camera, then the images may need to be aligned or registered using image editing software. Each image can be imported as a separate layer and moved around to align it with the rulers seen along the edges in the bottom layer. This will be a tedious process, so it is far better not to bump the camera in the first place!

If the photos are well aligned, then you can import them directly into your video editing software. Some programs allow you to set the length in frames of each imported image. You would want to set the images to three frames each if your final frame rate is 10 images per second. Once imported, if they are numbered sequentially, all you need to do is select all the images and drag them to your timeline in the video software and they will be in the right order and length.

Since the rulers can be seen along the edges of each image, you will need to enlarge the images. This can be done in two ways. The first is to expand the first image, then apply the same settings to each subsequent image. This is a slow and boring process. It’s much faster to simply export the video as is, then open a new file and import the draft video and place it on the timeline. Then the entire video as a single clip can be expanded to move the rulers off stage, and the final video exported again. You can add special effects (inserting flash frames, titles, additional layers, etc.), add narration and/or music and sound effects, and export the final version.


Step Five: Evaluation

Once the videos are done and ready to view, give the students feedback forms that ask them to evaluate the final videos, including their own, on such areas as scientific accuracy, depth of knowledge, technical ability, and aesthetics/design. Leave room for comments. Show the animations to the class, and have them fill out a feedback form for each video, encouraging the students to make positive suggestions. Then collect the forms and tally the results as a final grade for the assignment. You will want to evaluate the videos yourself as well and give more detailed feedback on how they can improve. You could also create a master video by piecing all the group projects into one video, then upload the whole thing to YouTube so other schools/classes can view it.


Notes on this Lesson:

This idea could also be used to model any process or natural cycle, such as chemical equilibrium, phase changes, types of reactions, conservation of matter and energy, kinetics, pH titrations, and thermodynamics in chemistry and the rock cycle, the water cycle, the carbon cycle, stellar evolution, plate tectonics, etc. in other sciences. I would enjoy hearing your ideas. Please let me know how you are using this activity by e-mailing me at: elementsunearthed@gmail.com.

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Element ornaments made by chemistry students at Walden School of Liberal Arts

Element ornaments made by chemistry students at Walden School of Liberal Arts

Leading up to Winter Break, we were learning about the elements and their properties in my chemistry class at Walden School of Liberal Arts. It seemed a good time to have my students pick an element to research and find out more about, but I didn’t want to have them do the “standard research paper.” I also wanted this project to incorporate some type of art as we are continuing on with the STEM-Arts Alliance program.

I decided to try out an activity that one of our former teachers at Walden, Matt Ellsworth, used last year: have the students pick an element and create an “ornament” that reflects something about the element, such as an outstanding property, a commercial use, its form as a mineral, etc. He also had them write physical values of the element on the ornaments, such as electron configuration, symbol, atomic number, atomic weight, and so forth.

My chemistry class is small, so not a lot of ornaments were made, but the results were overall quite good. As you can see from the photo, the ornaments incorporate some interesting designs and 3D effects. For example, the ornament of the space shuttle is for beryllium because that element was used in the brake linings and window frames of the space shuttle. Beryllium is mined principally in western Utah in the Spor Mountain range. An even more characteristic use would be to design the ornament to look like the James Webb Space Telescope, since its primary mirror is made from Utah beryllium.

A synthetic bismuth crystal. Notice the play of colors across its surface.

A synthetic bismuth crystal. Notice the play of colors across its surface.

The ornament on bismuth is very well done – it shows the structure and iridescent coloring of a single bismuth crystal. I’ve photographed bismuth crystals very much like it on display in Theo Grey’s office in Urbana-Champagne, Illinois. He is a noted collector of the chemical elements, the author of a photographic table of the elements, and creator of the best-selling iPad periodic table app. He was very accommodating to allow me to interview him in his office (sitting at his hand made wooden periodic table conference table) on my way home from Philadelphia in 2009.

This makes a great high-interest activity to do when students start to get restless before Winter Break. They can be quite creative in how they design and build their ornaments, and each year you can save the best ones to display. We simply used unfolded paper clips to hang them in class, and construction paper, scissors, glue, and tape to put them together.

You could also combine this with making ornaments from crystallized supersaturated salt solutions, such as copper (II) sulfate or Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate). Just look up the solubility of the salts and make a saturated solution, then bend some pipe cleaners in desired shapes representing the various holidays of Winter Break, such as the Star of David, or representing chemistry shapes (a Florence flask, a test tube, a beaker, etc.). Make a hook and hang the shape from a pencil in the solution, making sure not to touch the sides or other ornaments. After a few days, after crystals have formed, the ornaments can be removed and dried. We weren’t able to get to this activity, which I first learned about from a Flinn Scientific lab. But I have the materials and will try it next year.

More Elemental Ornaments: From Upper Left clockwise: A helium balloon, a titanium ring, a copper atom, a xenon buib, a particle accelerator with an argon chamber, a quartz crystal made of  silicon dioxide, an iron horseshoe magnet, a lead pipe, nitrogen gas in the atmosphere and fixated in the soil, a gold chain, a tungsten light bulb filament, a sack of coal (appropriate!), and, of course, Freddie Mercury.

More Elemental Ornaments: From Upper Left clockwise: A helium balloon, a titanium ring, a copper atom, a xenon buib, a particle accelerator with an argon chamber, a quartz crystal made of silicon dioxide, an iron horseshoe magnet, a lead pipe, nitrogen gas in the atmosphere and fixated in the soil, a gold chain, a tungsten light bulb filament, a sack of coal (appropriate!), and, of course, Freddie Mercury.

Another idea would be to use mineral samples as ornaments – with thin wire you can create a cage for a small sample of quartz or calcite or some other crystalline mineral to hang as an ornament. With some good epoxy glue you could attach a hook directly to a crystal. Of course, such mineral samples could also be used as jewelry (necklaces, earrings, etc.). A final idea could be to use some unvarnished copper sheeting or brass sheeting to cut ornament shapes, then use chemicals to create a patina on their surface. For example, if you leave copper and brass in a sealed container with ammonia and salt, they will turn nice blue color. If left in a container with vinegar and salt (or evan salt and vinegar potato chips crumbled up with a little extra vinegar added) the copper and brass will turn a nice green color as copper acetate forms.

Update: Another year has come and gone, and I had my chemistry students do the same activity this year. The class was larger, and there were some great results, including some interesting origami, as you can see from the photo here. Some were obvious, such as a black tube of paper as a lead pipe. Others were more creative, including a sack of coal for carbon, a particle accelerator for argon, and my personal favorite, Freddie Mercury.

A ChemisTree, complete with Elemental Ornaments.

A ChemisTree, complete with Elemental Ornaments.

Shapes cut from sheets of copper and brass, treated with vinegar and salt (green patina) and ammonia and salt (blue patina).

Shapes cut from sheets of copper and brass, treated with vinegar and salt (green patina) and ammonia and salt (blue patina).

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Paintings made with homemade pigments for my Intersession Science and Art class

Paintings made with homemade pigments for my Intersession Science and Art class

As a follow up to our lab for making iron-gall ink, I wanted to find recipes online for turning a standard high school chemical inventory into paint pigments for watercolors, pastels, or oil paints. I found some websites that use natural ingredients such as berry juice or even walnut shells, but not much on how traditional paint colors were made or how to make them today so they are colorfast and lightfast.

Lemon yellow pigment made from a double replacement reaction of barium nitrate and potassium chromate.

Lemon yellow pigment made from a double replacement reaction of barium nitrate and potassium chromate.

To make an ideal pigment, it must have several properties. It must be suspendable in some sort of medium, such as water or linseed oil. This means it forms fairly large particles that are opaque to light yet small enough to not settle out of solution immediately. Once on paper or canvas they should resist re-dissolving (waterproof) in the case of watercolors but be re-workable in oil paints. Pigments must stay the same color under a wide range of circumstances, including minor changes in pH or humidity or under exposure to light.

The Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii. The red background color is vermilion, or mercury sulfide made from cinnabar. According to Pliny the Elder, the painters made a nice side profit by frequently washing their brushes and taking home the wash water.

The Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii. The red background color is vermilion, or mercury sulfide made from cinnabar. According to Pliny the Elder, the painters made a nice side profit by frequently washing their brushes and taking home the wash water.

Many paint pigments were originally made from colorful rocks or minerals, such as lapis lazuli, aquamarine, charcoal, orpiment, or cinnabar. Some of these minerals, such as cinnabar (mercury (II) sulfide) are toxic. Most of the red pigments tend to be this way, or else aren’t a very bright shade of red. Yes, iron oxide (rust) makes a reddish brown and madder root makes a dull burgundy, but only cinnabar (also known as vermilion or Chinese red, which is a bright orange red) or lead oxides (known as minium) could produce a good red until the Spanish Conquest of the Americas.

Chinese red lacquerware box colored with Chinese red, or cinnabar.

Chinese red lacquerware box colored with Chinese red, or cinnabar.

When Cortez conquered Mexico, he found an abundance of cloth dyed a bright red color and on investigation found that the dye was produced from a ground up insect called cochineal. It produced a range of bright reds from magenta through red-orange, depending on how it was treated. He brought samples of the cloth and the bug (along with samples of chocolate, but that’s another story) back to Spain with him. The insect grows on a particular species of prickly pear cactus in Central and South America, and the Spanish eventually found it could grow and prosper in some parts of southern Spain and on the Canary Islands. The dye it produces is called carmine. It is the red of a cardinal’s robes and the red of the British Redcoats. It is still used today, including in various types of red or pink-dyed foods, including strawberry milkshakes. In the food industry, it is known as Red Dye # 4.

Cochineal insects living on large cacti. The female insects are sessile, attaching themselves permanently to the cactus and extruding a waxy coating to prevent dehydration. The carminic acid helps to ward off predators.

Cochineal insects living on large cacti. The female insects are sessile, attaching themselves permanently to the cactus and extruding a waxy coating to prevent dehydration. The carminic acid helps to ward off predators.

The types of reds used for painting now are cadmium red (which is rather expensive to make) and alizarin crimson, a synthetic pigment made from coal tar derivatives. You can also get a pink color by using a hydrated form of cobalt chloride as a pigment, but it turns bright blue as it dries out.

Grinding dried cochineal insects to make carmine pigment. This dye is also used in foods. Yes, you are eating bug juice.

Grinding dried cochineal insects to make carmine pigment. This dye is also used in foods. Yes, you are eating bug juice.

After searching all this out, I finally came across a website that provided information on the history and production of various pigments. It is called Pigments Through the Ages and has a URL of: http://www.webexhibits.org/pigments/. It shows all the various colors made, gives the history and traditional methods for producing them, as well as modern equivalents. I determined to try these out in my chemistry and Intersession classes. We did some experimentation and here are the recipes we developed:

Pigment recipes

Once we got a viable pigment, we added a few drops of gum Arabic as a binder and to thicken the pigment. Then we tried it out by sketching and painting illustrations. My chemistry class had to paint something related to the history of chemistry or their own chemistry presentation topic.

Chemistry student Evan makes synthetic yellow ochre pigment.

Chemistry student Evan makes synthetic yellow ochre pigment.

Please feel free to experiment, adapt, and test these formulas. From our experiments we had some interesting results. The Cobalt blue recipe was a light purple/pink in solution (the hydrated cobalt chlorides) but dried a bright cyan blue color. This happened every time we made it in class, yet one student who wanted to test these pigments as a science fair project made her own cobalt blue which turned out staying a medium blue as the recipe said it should. I’m not sure what she did differently. When we made the cobalt purple, the student wanted to thicken the resulting solution by boiling off some of the water. This produced a bright pink pigment that was colorfast and was very useful combined with lemon yellow to make a flesh tone.

Making cobalt blue pigment.

Making cobalt blue pigment.

The lemon yellow and Prussian blue formulas are infallible. The yellow ochre recipe was interesting. It starts with the same cobalt chloride as two other pigments, but uses glacial acetic acid to convert it to yellow. It works to make a powder and then hydrate it once the process is done, producing a pigment that is a dull yellowish gray dry but makes an intense slightly grayish yellow when dissolved in water. The carbon black (India black) was easily made from finely ground charcoal, although I would use a charcoal without self-lighting fluid. It makes an oil slick on the pigment. You could probably use soot even more advantageously as it is already finely divided. Just build a small campfire and put a piece of metal over the flames to collect soot, then scrape it off for a pigment.

Making pigments in the lab at Walden School

Making pigments in the lab at Walden School

The colors we had trouble with were browns and reds. I have not tried making a pigment from walnut shells, although I have collected some for the purpose. I did try to make brown using a piece of yellow ochre mineral (iron sulfide and oxide) I had, but the powdered ochre would not mix with water and rubbed off the paper even when I tried using some gum Arabic to bind it.

Beginning to paint the background washes using cobalt blue (which looks pink when wet) and prussian blue.

Beginning to paint the background washes using cobalt blue (which looks pink when wet) and prussian blue.

As explained above, red is a problem. I didn’t want to make red using lead or mercury compounds (minium or vermilion) and I couldn’t afford the cadmium, so the last result was to use cochineal, which I ordered from the Dharma Trading Company. Our first attempt was only partially successful. We ground up the insect bodies in a mortar and pestle and a red fluid came out, mostly carminic acid. We tried using it directly as a pigment, but the paint turned black with exposure to air. We then tried adding natural chalk (calcium carbonate) to make a lake, and that started as an opaque burgundy but turned black within a few minutes. Finally, I tried using alum powder (aluminum hydrogen phosphate) as a mordant and it made a nice burgundy color that was permanent.

Adding green robes made from a mixture of lemon yellow with cobalt blue and yellow ochre with Prussian blue.

Adding green robes made from a mixture of lemon yellow with cobalt blue and yellow ochre with Prussian blue.

Further research into cochineal told me that the best way to use cochineal to make carmine pigment is to crush the dried bus in a mortar and pestle, then filter the solid parts out by running the bug juice through filter paper or cheesecloth. Then add alum powder to stabilize the deep burgundy color. By adding a little vinegar, the color can turn a bright transparent red to reddish orange that will stain and dye cloth and work well for a watercolor pigment. I will try adding some chalk to it at this point to make the pigment opaque for pastels or paint.

Flesh tones (lemon yellow with cobalt pink) and gray beard (carbon black).

Flesh tones (lemon yellow with cobalt pink) and gray beard (carbon black).

As for the brown colors, even to this day most browns come from a clay which is dug out of deposits near the towns of Sienna and Umbria in Italy, then ground fine and used as a pigment. Sometimes they are heated or “burnt” to darken the color. This produces the colors raw and burnt sienna and burnt umber. I can’t exactly take a trip to Italy just to dig up dirt, so I’m working on my own browns out of walnut shells and other organic and mineral sources. I’m a bit stumped on how to grind up the walnut shells to get a fine powder.

The finished Democritus with pen and ink details. It was painted entirely with homemade pigments and inks.

The finished Democritus with pen and ink details. It was painted entirely with homemade pigments and inks.

I’ve included some of the paintings we’ve done. I did the one on Democritus, but others were done by students. I added details at the end with iron-gall ink and Prussian blue ink and a Speedball drawing pen. I also have a piece of watercolor paper that I’ve been using to paint and test swatches of our homemade paints, and you can see we’ve had some interesting results. We can now create about any hue, shade, or tint we need.

Paper of color swatches, used to try out variations and mixtures of pigments. The stabilized carmine is the deep burgundy swatches. The bright cyan is cobalt blue.

Paper of color swatches, used to try out variations and mixtures of pigments. The stabilized carmine is the deep burgundy swatches. The bright cyan is cobalt blue.

This has been a fun and informative exercise in inquiry and experimentation. We’ve seen most of the types of chemical reactions, have seen a variety of physical and chemical changes, and have even practiced some stoichiometry as we work on the finding the best ratios of reactants for our pigments.

Sebastian painting Greek armor using Prussian blue and cobalt blue with carbon black pigment he made.

Sebastian painting Greek armor using Prussian blue and cobalt blue with carbon black pigment he made.

Painting of stained glass windows by Nicole.

Painting of stained glass windows by Nicole.

A painting of fireworks in progress.

A painting of fireworks in progress.

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