The Balloon

This Friday the Blue Band’s balloon rose majestically through the rafters to screams of delight from the assembled morning circle crowd. For our band it was the culmination of three weeks of exploring, experimenting and problem solving.  The blue band was steeped in the physics, history and mathematics of ballooning.  Inspiration for their own balloon came from this documentary about the Montgolfier brothers.  Like the historians in the documentary the blue band first created a pattern for their balloon.

First week of Blue Band

Using snap together polygons Blue Banders created all different sorts of shapes.  Sadie wears the final design on her head.  The group decided upon the dodecahedron because it was simple and held the most air.

First week of Blue Band

We ran some experiments to try to and better understand the problems we might face.  The blue banders were given a table full of plastic bags and a blow dryer as a heat source.

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What they discovered was rather counter intuitive.  Everyone hypothesized that the small bags would float better because they were lighter but in fact the group found that it was the larger plastic bags that floated better when filled with hot air.  Ramses and Lily are filling the largest bag with hot air.

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To try to understand why big balloons float better than small balloons the Blue Band turned to mathematical modeling.

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This problem was definitely a stretch.  Very few in the band had encountered volume problems before.

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For some building cubes was a nice juicy challenge.  Others ran with the problem and discovered that in smaller cubes surface area was greater than volume and in larger cubes volume was larger than surface area.

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When the volume is larger than surface area less heat escapes and there is more buoyant air than heavy material.  We learned from Evan that the advantage of a high volume to surface area ratio is why whales and other sea creatures are so big.  There is such poetry in this idea.  I envision balloons like gentle beasts swimming through the air and whales flying through the sea.  After all, we learned in this short documentary that balloons float in air for much the same reasons as other objects float in water.

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So the Blue Band had to figure out how to make their shape BIG!  They used newspaper rolled into rods and cut to equal length to scale up the design.  Tamasen is taping together the edges of her pentagon.  She and her team are laying out the flat pattern for the dodecahedron design.  Recreating this design at scale was a great spatial reasoning challenge.

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When Gita, Soleil and Lily’s team attempted to assemble their polyhedron they discovered that while the triangles were pretty sturdy the rest of the shapes flopped around like crazy.

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When all of the shapes were assembled we realized we had a bit of a problem.  Not only were these floppy shapes hard to store, the patterns wouldn’t fit onto the plastic sheeting.  So the band went back to the drawing board.

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We’ve been reading chapters from the wonderful book Problem Solving 101 by Ken Watanabe.  He gives all sorts of great problem solving tools and is a big fan of finding the root problem.  Instead of spending tons of time trying to tape together broken patterns and cutting endless shapes from plastic, we sat back and tried to redefine our problem statement.  Instead of trying to solve the problem: “How do we cut out this big pattern?”  We started trying to solve this problem: “How do we cut out 12 pentagons?”

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Building off of each others ideas the band came up with a plan.  The band decided to fold the plastic.  We figured out how many times we would have to fold the plastic to get 12 hexagons.

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They traced a single pentagon on the folded plastic and with one effortless cut created 12 identical pentagons that could be taped together.

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With the balloon envelope taken care of, the Blue Band tackled it’s next problem:  The heat source.  Experimenting with the hair dryer convinced everyone that we would be needing a stronger heat source to lift our balloon.  The group got brainstorming.

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Fire is a pretty dangerous element to be working with.  The group had to come up with a safety plan.  We mapped out all possible hazards and did our best to neutralize them.

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In order to protect our hands and the balloon material from falling on the fire the band came up with the idea of a protective tube lined with nonflammable material.  Isaac dubbed this the fire tunnel.

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Finally the Blue Banders donned their fire protective gloves and jackets to test their balloon!

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The first test revealed some important adjustments that needed to be made.  The blue band had something that worked but needed to be tinkered with!

The Blue Band split up into two teams.  One team used scales to create a system to weight the bottom of the balloon.  The other team was tasked with making the opening at the bottom of the balloon smaller.  They cut out 5 trapezoids that were taped to the bottom of the balloon.

This project has been such a wonderful vehicle for learning all of the most important lessons of project work.  Set clear goals, make several iterations, play with your materials, when things aren’t working sit back and redefine the problem statement and finally tinker!  These kids were curious, perseverant and fabulous at collaborating with each other.  The way they encouraged each other and snapped ideas together was a beautiful thing to behold.  What a dream team!

Up, Up and Away

If you are the parent of a Blue Bander you might have heard something about balloons this week.  Yes, we are studying the history of the first human flight, yes, we’ve been looking at balloons through the lens of geometry and yes, our literature study book is Twenty-One Balloons by DuBois, but there is a bigger story here.  To make something truly amazing (like an enormous balloon that can take our stuffed animal aeronauts into the sky) you have to work together with other people.  What this week has really been about is teamwork and collaboration.  You know what? It’s actually incredibly hard!  

Our group has been presented with challenges big and small this week and asked to reflect on how best to collaborate and communicate.  We’ve done all sorts of team building games like the marshmallow challenge where students were given dried spaghetti, tape, string and a limited amount of time, then asked to build a tower strong enough to support a marshmallow.

First week of Blue Band

Sadie, Tamasen and Lily worked on a tripod to support their marshmallow.  Sadie spearheaded several iterations.  When the team got frustrated, Tamasen chimed in with some encouraging words.

First week of Blue Band

Gita, Soleil and Ronan reached for a pencil and paper before they even started building.  They were able to conserve their materials and divide the work by making sketch first.

Here are some of the things that our students discovered about the best approach to working in a group:

  • Make a plan and listen to each other before you get building
  • Ask how you can be helpful
  • Split up responsibilities
  • Snap different ideas together
  • Be positive and give encouragement

Next week we will really put these guidelines to the test as we attempt to make two enormous balloons that will have the lifting power to take a stuffed animal into the air!

First week of Blue Band

Inspired by a documentary about the Mongolfier brothers, the band tried to make balloons from paper.  Sadie looked to the hexagons and pentagons of a soccer ball for inspiration.  The main take away from this challenge was that it is hard to make a balloon from paper.

First week of Blue Band

In Blue Band’s second attempt at building a balloon, the group created polyhedrons.  Lily wore a fashionable polyhedron made of pentagons, squares and triangles on her head!

First week of Blue Band

Gita and Tamasen have loved working together this week.  They created crown-like shapes that fit together.

First week of Blue Band

One of the Blue Band’s favorite moments this week involved testing parachute designs in the wind tunnel.  Transfixed, the group watched their creations swirl in the tunnel.

First week of Blue Band

Ramses cited the wind tunnel as his favorite moment of the week.  He tirelessly tested iteration after iteration.

First week of Blue Band

Soleil also loved the wind tunnel but instead of testing several iterations, she spent her time carefully taping together beautiful balloon-inspired curved pieces.

First week of Blue Band

This week and this year, these intrepid learners will be presented with difficult challenges. They will make mistakes and try hard.  This article that the Blue Band read is about the neuroscience of learning.  The main message is that intelligence is like a muscle: the harder you work the stronger you get.  Ronan was so inspired by the article he wrote down quotes in his journal!  This year we will be flexing our problem-solving muscles everyday!

Brains!

The Brain: Mysterious organ of the mind!  This week the Chartreuse Band studied that lumpy stuff between our ears. We looked at the brain as anthropologists, biologists and psychologists.

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We started the week with a look at the evolutionary advantages and impacts of the human brain.  In Alice Robert’s Origins of Us: Brains,  we saw how having to adapt to a rapidly changing landscape could’ve made a larger brain advantages.   We saw how this larger brain made it possible to make better use of stone tools and work in a group.  And we saw how a bigger brain allowed for the transmission of culture to our children through learning.  

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This led into a study of the anatomy and physiology of the brain.  We watched several crash course videos on the central nervous system and filled in anatomy of the brain coloring pages.  

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We reenacted the nervous system and worked together to send sensory input to the brain and relay those messages back to body.  

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Of course the crowning moment of the week was dissecting sheep brains!

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  There is nothing like donning latex gloves and squishing some brains to really stoke curiosity.

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It was really wonderful to see students using scalpels and manuals to discuss and identify structures with their peers.  I saw students drawing on all they had been learning as they poked around and drew on what they saw.  It was a true culmination of all that we have been exploring this week.

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Lola, Nora, Bruno and Clementine continued dissecting and exploring long after everyone left.  They even demonstrated what they had learned to the Orange and Indigo bands who happened to be passing through.

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To round out the week we had Jeremy Mintz, Phd in Psychology and good friend of mine, visit our class.  He opened our time with a question: what is the relationship between brain and mind?  We watched a Ted Talk by Iain Mcgilchrist’s called The Divided Brain.  We discussed and acted out the ways in which the specialties of each side of the brain influence us.
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This exploration of the brain is going to continue into next week as we take a look at child development, intelligence and memory.  

Altruism, Greed and Skulls

What an exhilarating week!  We’ve been detectives, anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers.  All in the pursuit of big questions like, “What sets humans apart from other species?” and “Are we fundamentally motivated by competition or altruism?”

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For the next two weeks we have skulls on loan from the academy of sciences.  We’ve been using these skulls to explore questions of what make us human.  We started by looking at the teeth of several different animals, including us humans.  We ate different food to try and make hypotheses about the functions of our different kinds of teeth. An important observation was made about how canines, which are used for ripping, are pronounced in animals that eat meat.  We have far less pronounced canines than other omnivores.

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Patrick and Lola shared a theory that this is because we use tools to cut our food and fire to cook it.  Perhaps one of the things that distinguishes us as a species is that we cook.  This is an idea that Michael Pollan expands upon in the first episode of his new series Cooked.  We watched and discussed this show as a follow up to our exploration of skulls.  Another theme emerged during this documentary is how much food creates community.

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Some of the most exciting and engaged moments we had this week happened as we explored how cooperation and sharing define us as a species.  We started this exploration with a BBC documentary with anthropologist Alice Roberts called What Makes Us Human.  In this documentary behavioral scientists create a situation in which chimps have to cooperate in order to get a reward.  Each chimp only helps to the extent to which they get a reward and don’t help the other partner if something goes wrong.  However, when they recreated this experiment with human toddlers they found that the young kids would share their reward if they had worked together to achieve it.  This launched an exploration that included two provocative games that modeled social pressures and difficulties that occur around sharing and cooperation.  There are more in depth descriptions of the rules of these games on the Exploratorium website.  These games were responsible for some of the more heated and interesting discussions that we had all week. Fortunately we’ve got more games like these to play and reflect upon in the coming weeks.  Another source of interesting conversation came from the ted talk The Science of Greed.  

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It is always exhilarating and exhausting to visit the Exploratorium and I think it is always best to go with a purpose in mind.  Their science of sharing exhibit fits so perfectly into the themes that we are exploring in this arc.  Students got to play games that modeled the tragedy of the commons, the freeloader phenomenon, the prisoner’s dilemma and other activities that revealed biases and stereotypes that we hold.  They recorded information regarding the decisions they made and their feelings around their decisions and those of the their partner. This coming week, we will be able to reflect upon our experiences with each activity.

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We have enjoyed the feedback we have been receiving from a number of families around the blog posts being written at home and the opportunities it has created to have family discussions around what we are learning and what your child is interested in this arc. We truly look forward to reading their posts over the arc now that they have more freedom around the prompt and direction they choose to take with their blog post each week.

Next week we will be continuing our look into what makes us human by studying some neuroscience.  We will be dissecting sheep brains!

Young Scientists And A Pair of Authors

Tending to a controlled experiment is no small task.  Every morning during our personal project time our young scientists get to work watering their plants and entering measurements into their spreadsheets.  By the time park rolls around the students are scrambling to clean up and begging to stay in and continue their work.   Last week the students set up their experiments taking care to keep all of the variables constant.  While they waited for their seeds germinated under the soil they created spreadsheets.  When their seeds finally poked their heads above the soil the excitement at seeing results was captivating.  Here is a snapshot of what each student in my personal project group is doing

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Going into this project phase Lola was really interested in bugs and how they interact with plants.  She decided to create a controlled experiment to test the effect worms have on plant growth and soil moisture.  In her experimental design she made sure to include redundancy in her test groups.   She carefully measured equal weights of soil for 3 control containers without worms and 3 test groups with worms.  She plans to observe the plant growth over time and measure and compare the weight of the soil at the end of the experiment.  

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Amiya, is interested in how plants orient themselves.  He is a planing to grow plants in two experimental groups.  One where the container is upright and one container is on its side.  He is going to document the growth of the plant with pictures, drawings and observations.  He has discovered that so far his hypothesis is being confirmed.

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Bruno was interested in creating a controlled experiment from the start.  From his many ideas he chose to investigate the role bacteria plays in plant growth.  He is going to treat one experimental group with antibiotics, another with probiotics and leave the last one untreated as a control.  

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Patrick knew what he wanted to do from the start.  He was interested in how plants are affected by different light sources.  He is going to grow one plant under a black light, another under an incandescent light and the last group in sunlight.

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Freddie is very interested in organic farming.  She is taking on a whole lot for her personal project phase.  Not only is she setting up a controlled experiment to see how organic fertilizer compares to organic fertilizer she is also doing a research project about the environmental and human impact of conventional farming.  

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Huxley and Zev are interested in how plants will grow in a post apocalyptic world.  They researched some of the changes that our water supply might undergo in the future.  They will be subjecting their seeds to salt solution, carbonic acid, detergent solution and a mixture of all of these solutions.  They are interested to see the threshold at which seeds cease to grow.  

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Natasha and Lucy love writing and loved the stories they read in Seed Folks.  They are planning on writing two more chapters each in the style of the book.  To prepare their declaration they re-read and analyzed several chapters in order to find similar themes and patterns.  They discovered that every chapter introduces the character and their family in a way that sets up some sort of challenge or area of growth.  The character then does something to contribute to the garden and is in turn transformed by their participation in the garden.  In their outlines for their chapters the girls identified a conflict or challenge that each of their characters has and how they change through the garden.  

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Chartreuse Projects

It’s that time again, when we take all the things we’ve explored during the arc and declare a project.  Melissa and I wanted to give the kids an opportunity to practice autonomy while still getting a chance to create something bigger and more complex than any individual could create.  Following that spirit the Chartreuse band will have an opportunity to choose an independent project as well as a group project.

Independent projects are a tricky thing.  At nine and ten our students are still developing the self management skills they need to be successful at independent project work.  They all still need a good amount of help to create something awesome.  Melissa and I don’t have the resources to be intimately involved in 16 different projects so we decided to give a prompt that would send the students on two different paths of expression.  We asked them to think about either creating a controlled experiment or to researching an area of interest and writing a paper on it.   I will be leading the group that chooses to create a controlled experiment and Melissa will be heading up the researchers.  We will both be giving mini lessons on our respective modes of expression.  Because students will be doing the same types of projects they will also be able to help each other tackle hard problems and stay on track. Already great ideas have surfaced.  Experiments to see how worms in soil, black lights and different fertilizers affect plant growth.  Research projects on bamboo, organic farming and plant defenses.

Because we are Brightworks, the school that always tries it’s best to say, “yes”, we have been open to other independent project ideas as well.  Two students want to write additional chapters in the style of Seed Folks, a book we’ve been studying for the past months.  Another student is putting together a proposal for creating free lending libraries for community gardens around the city.  Stay tuned for a complete list of all of Chartreuse individual projects.  

This brings us to group projects.  Drum roll please…This arc, in small groups, the Chartreuse band will be studying and building vertical gardens, constructing a machine to roll oats and doing a service project for the community garden by building a cat house that doubles as an out house.  Our group project ideas were harvested from a massive Chartreuse band brainstorm.   From this great steaming pot of ideas we chose those that could accommodate several students and had diverse points of engagement.  Because Evan (our new shop teacher and park staffer) agreed to join us for this project phase we were able to give the students three different project options each managed by a different adult.  The students rated each of these three options based on their interest and we were able to sort them into groups based on our knowledge of group dynamics and their preferences.

I’d like to give you all a brief history behind each of these group projects.  

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During Exploration the Yellow band built a vertical garden out of gutter material in their bandspace window.  They also did some math explorations of how much square footage it would take to feed different amounts of people.  These explorations of space efficiency and window farming have culminated in this bigger project to create larger vertical garden units in our window.

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Melissa is particularly excited about this project and will be leading her team of engineers in using recycled materials to grow plants in windows.  Her group includes: Natasha, Trudy, Patrick, Justin, Lucy and Freddie.

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From the very first day of the arc when Gever slashed open a sack of oat groats and let them rain all over the cork floor the Green and Yellow bands were interested in smashing oats.

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Both Melissa and I turned this into a math opportunity in which we estimated how long it would take to roll enough oats by hand for everyone in the band to have a bowl of oatmeal.  Though our calculations varied widely, it became apparent that it would take a very long time.  This is when the kids started thinking of creating an oat rolling machine. 

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Evan with his interest in primitive machines, ability with sketchup and comfort in the workshop is a perfect fit for this project.  He is really excited to be working with Huxley, Clementine, Zev and Quinn.

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Over the past month or so we’ve been visiting 23rd Street Garden on a regular basis.  This community garden is a very special and unusual place.  Tucked behind an unassuming wall and shaded by avocado trees this garden doesn’t have individual plots but is cared for by everyone who comes in.  While we are there we rake leaves, plant potatoes and read Seed Folks.  It has been a wonderful place to discuss how the characters in this novel are transformed by a community garden.

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I asked Jeanie, the garden’s guardian, if there were any bigger projects that we could do to contribute to the garden.  She showed us to great big wooden crate told us how they would like to use it as a house for the garden’s resident mouse catching cat.  They would also like this crate to double as a outhouse for pee that can be funneled out into the bamboo for fertilizer.  She asked our young architects to come up with designs and create models of their ideas.

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At Brightworks we have a declaration process that ends with Gever and Ellen giving their approval.  What I love about this project is that our declarations will need to be good enough to be approved by the committee that runs the community garden.  It doesn’t get more real than that.  I am so happy to have such a solid team: Lola, Aurora, Nora, Selina, Bruno and Amiya. This project couldn’t be in better hands.

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Let the Novel Writing Begin

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National Novel Writing Month or “Nanowrimo” is a time when students get to lock up their inner editor and let their imaginations run wild.  The month of November is given over to writing.  Focusing on quantity over quality, students write to reach a word goal and win bound copies of their story.  During December and January the students revise their work into a publishable form.  The delight on students faces when they receive their bound copies is a wonderful thing to behold.

The past two weeks the Green band has been reflecting on what they love about stories and analyzing the structure of the novels they admire.  They have been inventing main characters, figuring out the driving motivations of those characters and the inventing obstacles those characters will face over the course of their journeys.  They are mapping out the rising and falling action of their plots so they are prepared to get writing on the first day of November!  Next Tuesday we will begin our week with an Nanowrimo writing party.