Tissue Paper Hot Air Balloons to Launch at Great Reno Balloon Races

From a Press Release today:

“900 Students from northwest Nevada will descend on Rancho San Rafael Park in Reno, site of the Great Reno Balloon Race, on Friday, September 5, 2014, to launch their own hot air balloons which they designed and constructed from tissue paper. In addition they will witness the launch of several high altitude weather balloons that will carry student authored “High Hopes” to altitudes of 30,000 feet or more.”







LEFT: Teachers learning to construct a tissue paper hot air balloon during a training in July 2014.






Specially designed launchers will be utilized to fill each balloon with enough hot air to send it aloft.


About 10 of these launchers will be available to launch student balloons.


BELOW: The tissue paper balloons are slipped down over the launcher and filled with hot air, then released when they become buoyant.



As part of learning the “engineering design process” required by the Nevada Academic Content Standards in science (Nevada adopted the Next Generation Science Standards), students will have resources available on-site to improve their design and then relaunch to assess their engineering skills.

BELOW: A video clip of a launch from last year’s event.

Learning is messy!

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Beginning the Year Activities

I’ve written this blog post before because I found building the community in the classroom so crucial. Why wait? Start off right away giving students opportunities and experiences that lead to a collaborative atmosphere.

Beginning of the Year Classroom Learning Activities,” –  I posted last year and it explains some of my favorite activities and includes links to longer more explicative versions.

Every Piece of the Puzzle is Important” – is a great project that teaches simple word processing and printing skills while demonstrating how we are all stronger when we realize what strengths we each bring to the group.

The Important Book, A Writing Lesson” – is a very popular post on this blog. Not only is it a great way to teach paragraphing, I use it to teach writing blog posts but especially blog comments.

Have a great start to your year!

Learning is messy!

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Nevada Tahoe Teacher STEM Institute

3 weeks ago we participated in the Nevada Tahoe Teacher STEM Institute. Over 50 K – 9 teachers from all over Nevada came to the Tahoe Environmental Research Center (TERC) at Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village, Lake Tahoe, for a week of STEM learning. The funding was based on a Math/ Science Partnership Grant we wrote and received through the Nevada Department of Education. The event was put on by the Nevada’s Northwest Regional Professional Development Program, Washoe County School District, TERC, along with help and support from others mentioned in this post. BELOW: We started off with a group photo.







Sunday evening we started them off learning the science of tie-dye (covalent bonds and all) and made the case for STEM learning. We also set up a STEM notebook for each teacher as well as a digital notebook (blog).











The next day started at 6:30 am for breakfast and a day of Project WET, GEMS (Great Explorations in Math and Science), background in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a trip on the TERC research vessel on Lake Tahoe, stream studies and training on and set-up of blogs, wikis and a Flickr photo account – all of which we added to all week.

DSCN0584 DSC02667




GEMS – Great Explorations in Math and Science



Out on the TERC research vessel




ABOVE: Field Lab Director Brant Allen explains the use of a Secchi disk in reporting out the clarity of the water in Lake Tahoe. The clarity has degraded from over 100 feet to about 70 feet since the 1960’s. BELOW: Secchi disk being lowered into the lake.


A couple of past visitors to the TERC research vessel you might recognize: DSC02702





BELOW: Stream monitoring and benthics.








During following days all teachers learned geology, aquatic habitats, space science, ocean science, food webs, the ethics of teaching outdoors – and the middle and high school teachers also worked in the Soluble Reactive Phosphorous Lab solving a mystery about pollution sources ala CSI. The grant provided experts from GEMS, TERC the USGS and others to teach classes and lead labs.DSC02753 DSC02758






In the Soluble Reactive Phosphorous Lab




BELOW:Food webs












Participants loved the “Digital Sandbox”

DSC02766 Geoff Schladow – Director of the Tahoe Environmental Research Center explains the “State of the Lake.”






We also got to visit the lake at sunset:






Besides the more than 40 hours of training, participating teachers each received lessons, supplies and other resources to take back to their classrooms and students so they can use what they learned right away. In addition teachers will have monthly follow-up sessions to share their progress, ask questions, share resources they have developed and make connections through the classroom blogs, wikis and Flickr accounts they set-up. It was an intense and rewarding week of learning and sharing in one of the most beautiful locations on Earth!

FLICKR Set from the institute


Learning is messy!

Posted in Blogging, Change, Cooperative Learning, Education, Field Trips, Inclusion, Literacy, Messy Learning, Project Based, Project Wet, STEM, Student Access, Teacher Access, Technology, Web 2.0, Wikis | Leave a comment

Why should education leaders embrace digital technologies in their schools?

Why should education leaders embrace digital technologies in their schools? leadershipday2014_01-300x240

1) If you are in a state that adopted the “Common Core State Standards” (CCSS) you really don’t have a choice. There are many (yes many) English Language Arts standards alone that require students as young as kindergarten to use technology to read, produce and publish digital content and to collaborate in doing so. Just a few examples from the CCSS:

K – 12 - Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

K-12 - With guidance and support from adults, explore a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing, including in collaboration with peers.

6th grade – (NOTE: by 6th grade the “… guidance and support from adults …” is gone. 6th graders are to master this standard on their own) Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others; demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of three pages in a single sitting.

5th grade –  Analyze how visual and multimedia elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text (e.g., graphic novel, multimedia presentation of fiction, folktale, myth, poem).

I’m not sure how we get our students to the mastery of these standards, and many others without ubiquitous access to and utilization of the technologies required.

2) Collaboration – This was already stated in the standards above, but those were specifically language arts standards. Communication and collaboration are already key to being educated, but also in getting a job. Learning to collaborate with the student next to you in class or in your group is great, but technology makes it easy (yes, easy) to collaborate globally. Will it be “good enough” if students just learn to collaborate in class? Will that foster solid collaboration skills with today’s (and tomorrow’s) technologies? Not that getting a job is the only reason to learn solid collaboration skills, but getting a job without having those skills is not getting easier. Mastering all the ways collaboration is leveraged personally and using technology is vital.

3) Programming and design – 3D printing (did you know they are printing whole houses, food and blood vessels already?), also –  software development, engineering, graphics, architecture, transportation, art, medicine,  and much more all rely on programming and design skills … this is what is happening now in fields with good paying jobs.

4) Inventing (often referred to as “making” these days) – This is hands on and motivating and requires the skills developed through pedagogy that includes all of the above.

5) Problem solving – (See above)

So you think children are already mastering these skills and technologies on their own by using their smart phones and other technology 24/7? Ok, let’s see how that works out with your students.

I don’t pretend that I’ve included all the reasons that leaders should consider (please add your own in the comments). But these are not easy or cheap changes that have to happen. We’re not going to provide the technology and professional development and commitment to change on the cheap. Only real leadership will get us there.

Learning is messy!

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What a Hoot!

Last Friday my wife and I were invited up to Galena Creek Park just outside of Reno, Nevada, to participate in a program designed to inform the general public and educators about the learning opportunities provided there by the Great Basin Institute. In addition we witnessed the release of 8 owls into the wild – 4 Great Horned Owls and 4 Barn Owls. These were owls that were cared for and rehabilitated by The Wild Animal Infirmary For Nevada.

DSC01266A Barn Owl ready for release.







A screeching Barn Owl – not more than 6 months old about to be released into the wild:

As I watched each owl being released I couldn’t help but think about creative writing assignment ideas. Mostly about how students could research the daily habits of barn owls and/or great horned owls and then write stories (which could easily become blog posts, podcasts, and so much more) about the experience from the point of view of an observer or from the owl itself.

A Great Horned Owl being released:

I’d brainstorm with my students what the owl would experience in being orphaned or injured. The rehabilitation experience. Then being in the box on the way to the park, being taken out of the car … sitting waiting to be released (is the owl aware of what is about to happen … or not?). Then being released … at dusk … its getting dark … is that scary for a young owl … or an adventure? You’ve never been on your own before … what is happening … you land in a tree not far from where you were released … what do you see, think, do?

You’ve got that incredible vision … what do you see? What could be scary? Fun? Interesting? …. So many possibilities.

It was a great night.

Photo of the sky that nightDSC01268






Link to the Flickr photo/video set of more owl releases.

Learning is messy!

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Lake Tahoe Launch … Messy and Worth It – The Short Version

So after last week’s debacle … we learned to be patient and wait for better wind conditions. Here’s the short version of what happened. We inflated on the beach at DL Bliss State Park:


Paddle boarded the balloon out where the clear water of Lake Tahoe was about 45 feet deep:


With a snorkeler for help (he also shot some great video with a GoPro I’ll share another time):


Next we launched with 2 GoPro cameras 40 feet deep in the lake at the end of a line and 4 more on other payloads:


Here are some of the views we got:

For size reference: Lake Tahoe is almost 22 miles long and a bit more than 11 miles wide. (35 km long X 19 km wide). The lake is 1645 feet deep (501 meters).

Lake Tahoe, Carson City, Nevada, Reno and Pyramid Lake from 90,000 feet + (near space)


Then the balloon burst somewhere between 95,000 and 100,000 feet – follow the link to see the frame by frame of the burst:


And the video:



Then it landed and we went and got it:

There was some animal byproduct to deal with:

It was a great day!

Here is a link to more photos.

NOTE: This launch was part of a project being developed by the University of Nevada, Reno- Mechanical Engineering Department, the 21st Century Division of the Washoe County School District, and Nevada’s Northwest Regional Professional Development Program (who I work for now). We were trying out some technologies and possible engineering and science problems to turn over to area K-12 students to solve for a similar launch next April or May – still in the planning stages.

Learning is messy!

Posted in Digital Video, Education, Field Trips, Inclusion, Messy Learning, Project Based, STEM, Student Access, Teacher Access, Technology | 3 Comments

Messy Balloon Launch – Failure is a Teacher

I’ve been “Tweeting” out from time to time lately about our latest “High Hopes” balloon launch. This balloon launch is different from launches we’ve done in the past in that students are not directly involved … but this flight is really all about getting students to be involved.

Lake Tahoe From Near Space during a previous flight (blue object in upper corner is a party balloon attached to the payload)











We have big plans for a project next year that will involve students, but we need to try out a few new twists and some new technology and that is complicated. In addition, one of our ulterior motives is to try things that won’t necessarily work or go well …  and so we’ll turn our ideas, results, and  problems over to students for them to engineer and re-engineer. It’s all part of that engineering design process.

In fact, some of what we are attempting is so complicated we experienced a failed launch yesterday. Part of the failure was trying to figure out the procedures required to launch a balloon from and in the water. This involves having divers in the water and has not been tried before so we were working it out. Our failure mostly resulted however, from trying to launch when the wind was just too gusty and unpredictable. Here is the video of the second balloon that popped on the ground:

This video was actually shot by a camera that was laying on its side waiting to be dropped into the lake … I rotated the image so it is easier to watch. The balloon is blown right into the kayak paddle … and that was that. We are monitoring the wind and will make a new attempt to launch next week when all members of the team have time and it isn’t a windy day … AT ALL … so watch for the results … if things go as planned we should get back some great photos and videos.

A more important reason for this post however is that if school was still in session I would be sharing this story with students and teachers … and I plan to in the future. I would also share this video of a NASA balloon launch gone astray that almost killed people and caused millions of dollars in damage. I have shown this commercial of Michael Jordan explaining the power of failure as well. (How many examples can you think of right now to add here? I bet a bunch.)

Students have to understand that adults and even “experts” have things, “not go as planned,” and that how we process and handle that is vital. This is the crux of “messy learning.” That the process should not purposely involve careless, especially dangerous mistakes born of disregard, but that analyzing and learning from mistakes is how learning evolves. We should be teaching this through the experiences happening in and out of our classrooms.

That takes time … learning and doing  that are important involve dealing with complexity and the complications that can only be realized by attempting complicated things. That kind of learning and doing can’t always be put on a tight schedule, nor should it. It also can’t always be planned or experienced the same across 2 or more classrooms on the same grade level when teachers are meeting in PLCs. Complexity and learning happen beyond what we can plan and we must embrace that more in our schools. To be fair I think most believe that, where we fall down is in not REALLY embracing it and allowing it to happen … even sometimes.

This messy learning is a big part of what STEM is about. Beyond the learning being messy, the planning, administration, scheduling and implementation are messy as well. And somehow it has to be OK that they are messy.

Sharing our failures and our thinking, planning and implementation after failure is one important aspect we don’t often give the respect it deserves in our schools.

Learning is messy!

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3D Printers – Where Will It End?

I’ve known about 3D printers for quite awhile, but only though news reports and the occasional conversation. So once I got involved in building my own …  then of course they were on my radar and I constantly notice them and hear about them … and acquaintances that have seen mine printing in my cubicle at work are amazed at the whole concept. Not that my printer is much of an example as yet … everything I have printed so far is flawed – not enough heat or printing too fast or ???. It needs adjustment and I need some time and some mentoring to get it there.








My printer printing out a 3D squirrel.


Here are just a few examples of where 3D printing is heading that have been in the news lately – click on the titles to read more:

Researchers are using 3D printers to make blood vessels






[Image credit: Khademhosseini Lab]

From the article:

“There has been talk of printing blood vessels for a few years, but it’s tricky to make tissue that fits the complex shapes of a human body while remaining effective. However, a research team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital may have licked that problem: they’ve 3D printed vessels using a new technique that allows for intricate yet capable designs.”


3D-Printed Food Actually Looks (and Tastes) Pretty Delicious

“Across the pond, in Germany, companies are doing some incredible things with 3D printing. They’re using it to make food. Actual food, like the kind that tastes good.

One of the more successful projects is Biozoon’s Smoothfood, which was developed to print food for senior citizens in retirement and assisted living communities. Those communities have a major need for food that their residents do not need to chew.”


Giant Chinese 3D printer builds 10 houses in just 1 day








From the article:

“A private company located in eastern China has printed ten full-size houses using a huge 3D printer in the space of a day. The process utilizes quick-drying cement, but the creators are being careful not to reveal the secrets of the technology.

China’s WinSun company, used a system of four 10 meter wide by 6.6 meter high printers with multi-directional sprays to create the houses. Cement and construction waste was used to build the walls layer-by-layer, state news agency Xinhua reported.”

The article/post includes a YouTube video that exhibits the houses and the printer in action.

These represent just a few of the ways 3D printing is being used – they’re even looking into printing food and more in space. What are the implications in education and in our lives?

Learning is messy!


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Ball Chain Inquiry – STEM

Yeah, I know. Ball chain inquiry?

Ball chain is that chain that keychains and the like have been made out of for years. I’ll bet some of you have seen this before – there are several videos online and “Mythbusters” included it in an episode.












When I saw those videos I had ideas right away for an inquiry piece that would be fairly cheap and easy to do. I haven’t thought enough about it yet to match it to specific standards … but I’m always on the lookout for easy / quick ways to demo inquiry during professional development trainings I do and I saw potential for this right away.

This 250 foot roll came in a few weeks ago but I haven’t had a chance to try out my ideas yet – today not many folks are in the office, so I jumped at the chance to finally mess around with it and see how it works.

Before saying more let’s take a look – click the video below:

One thought I’ve already had besides, “So what exactly causes that to happen?” (is it somewhat on the same principle as a siphon? –  Not sure – just wondering) is to measure out lengths of the ball chain (10 meters say) and time how long it takes to empty the container. Then ask, “How long do you think it would take for say… 20 meters?” (exactly twice as long? … or does it speed up as it falls?) NOTE – I wouldn’t share that with students, let them decide and then in writing explain their thinking. So they need to time it precisely (do more than one trial at each length – probably 3).

Next keep adding lengths to the chain with the connectors and see if students can become accurate at predicting the exact time. AND – then start including various lengths of chain, like 17.4 meters … can they predict that? What math do they require to figure that out? Or involve fractions instead of decimals – “How long would it take 47 3/4 meters to empty?”

Does height play a role? Does it drop at a different rate from different heights? How would we figure that out?

I see lots of possibilities for this. When I get a chance to try this out with teachers and/or students I’ll let you know what I find out … OR – if you get there before me, let us all know in the comments. Any other ideas how this could be utilized as a learning activity?

BTW – I got that 250 foot roll you see in the photo online for $20 and a bag (50 at least) of the connectors for a couple dollars more. (#10 ball chain – it comes in various sizes – that would be another exploration – does different size chain fall at different speeds?)

Learning is messy!

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Story of a 3D Printed Whistle

Pavel Solin is an associate professor in the Applied Mathematics Department at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the founder of NCLab, an open public cloud computing platform that provides free web browser access to open source software related to computer modeling and scientific computing. I teamed up with him earlier this year to teach a coding class for teachers ….  well he taught it, I set the class up and took attendance basically.

Pavel contacted me this week with a story about elementary students engineering a whistle that might actually work – I’ve cut and pasted his blog post about it below. I am adding video clips of trying the printed out designs. One aspect that amazes me is that the printer prints out the ball inside the whistle … inside the whistle!

I’ve seen many examples of figures printed out on a 3D printer … and they are impressive. Students have to figure out and problem solve coding the design to get it just right. But this is different in that students aren’t just printing out a figure that looks like a whistle, they are using the engineering design process to make a whistle that actually works … hopefully.

Understand that in this instance students were scaffolded along the way by their teacher. I was thrilled when Pavel gave me the 3 whistles to use as examples. I’m really looking forward to trying projects like this once the 3D printer I am building from a kit is finished (2 days from now is the goal!).

 Pavel’s post with my addition of video clips:

Story of a Whistle

Few days ago, kids from the Schurz Elementary School in Mineral County School District, supervised by Jeremy Elsmore, designed a whistle. I was amazed by the idea of creating something that works. So far, all 3D models I saw were just for display. Here it is. The ball inside the chamber is cool. Once printed, it will remain trapped there forever.

Naturally, the students were anxious to see whether the 3D print would produce sound. Me too.

Click the video link below to see if this whistle design works!


But unfortunately, it did not. The symmetry cutplane reveals that all the air blown into the whistle leaves through the large opening before entering the chamber, and even before hitting the opposite edge.



Second Design

Kids sometimes tend to give up when something does not work. This example can be used to show them that when something does not work, that’s not the end at all. On the contrary – it’s the beginning. To force the air into the chamber, the design was changed:

To better see how the whistle is arranged inside, here is the symmetry cutplane again:

And, this is the 3D print:

Click the video link below to see if the second “re-engineered” design works.



Nice, right? Do you think that it worked? Nope. Argh!


Third Design

The whistle is not a simple thing at all. We googled for schematics of whistles but those we found were not very useful. We also watched several YouTube videos showing how to create a whistle. But all of them were using a different design, without the ball and chamber, based just on a short straight piece of wood. Nevertheless, in all of them, the edge that is hit by the streaming air was sharp. That’s what we did in the third design:

Again, here is the symmetry cutplane that reveals the internals:

And finally, this is the 3D print:

Will the third try be the charm? Click the video to find out:

So what else could be designed and printed that actually is a working product? I already thought up designing a whirlybird design that flies on its own. What else?


Learning is messy!

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