Ascension: How Far Do They Go?

I just discovered the SyFy Channel’s mini-series Ascension.  In it, a spaceship (pictured above), the size of the Empire State Building, carries 600 people from Earth to another star in order to colonize a new world.  The premise of the show holds that the ship must travel 100 years to its destination.  Neat!

Now, on the ship, people are operating as though there is Earth-like gravity.  Look! In the photo below, from the first episode, they’re standing around, talking about a dead person, as though they were on Earth, standing around, talking about a dead person.

As you watch the show, you soon understand that the living quarters are arranged so that people perceive “up” to be the top of the ship, and “down” to be the bottom, as though they were standing in a skyscraper.  In the photo at the top of the blog, people would be standing, and their heads would be pointing left, their feet pointing right.

This gives us a clue how the show designers imagine creating gravity. TASK 1: Read about general relativity, and describe: what should be the motion of the spaceship?  Should it move at constant speed, or some acceleration? What speed, or acceleration?

TASK 2: Once you have answered the above, use one of the kinematics equations to determine – how far do they go? You’ll need to list assumptions that you make, but keep this first calculation simple, just assuming a single value for the velocity or acceleration you determined.

To help out, here are the kinematics equations:

Remember that the kinematics equations assume something about the acceleration.

If you make the same assumptions as me, then you will determine that the ship went a distance of somewhere around 4.9 x 1019 meters, assuming that we know the time of the travel to the nearest 1 year, giving the number 100 years 3 significant digits.  (We might say 100. years)

TASK 3: If the spaceship actually went that distance, then how many light years is that?   How does that compare to some of the closest stars to our own?

TASK 4:  Uh oh.  You know what happens when you make assumptions, don’t you?  There’s a problem.  Well, there are several, but let’s address just one in this task.  Use an equation of motion to determine the final speed of the space ship after 100 years.   Then compare that to the speed of light.  Then look up special relativity, and discuss: what is the problem here?

TASK 5:  Ok – here’s another problem: how does the spaceship stop? Many space-travel theorists suggest that an interstellar trip should have two halves.  The first half is an acceleration to a top speed, at which point the spaceship turns itself around, while its momentum continues to carry it in the original direction of travel.  Once it is turned around, it fires its engines directly at its (far away) target, to slow it down.  So let’s say that the Ascension turns around at 50 years.  Does this resolve the problem in Task 4?  Explain.

TASK 6: Use the relativistic rocket equations to determine how far the spaceship ACTUALLY  would go in that 50 years.  Ha ha!  Not really.  It’s already been done by someone much more knowledgeable than me.  But reading might lead to some insight about the issue.

The real TASK 6: Discuss how realistic it is for the show’s creators to generate gravity in the way they seem to in the show.

Ok, my physics-teaching or physics-knowing peeps, here are my questions about the problem:
1) What do you think of breaking it up into tasks like the above?
2) Questions too vague? I intended to be fairly cagey about particularly task 1, because I want them to relate the motion of the ship to their reading of the relativity.
3) Anyone have some particular favorite online explanations of special and general relativity that would support students in this problem?
4) Anything I should add?  Did I get anything wrong?

EDIT – 6/25/15
As I re-read this, there are a couple of items to point out:

1) I can see this being used to introduce relativity to high school Physics 1 students who have already done some work with 1-dimensional motion. It could also be done in a typical kinematics project (as an embedded problem) or unit.

2) I like the idea of rolling this out with just the introduction that ends with the sentence, “In the photo at the top of the blog, people would be standing, and their heads would be pointing left, their feet pointing right,” and no tasks enumerated.  Rather, give small groups of students the opportunity to inquire.   Perhaps a prompt of,

“What questions does this raise for you?  As a practitioner of physics, what kinds of information might you be able to calculate from the given information?”

That would create a bit more of an organic start, but you could still hold a list of tasks for students who seem to flounder.

The Interactive Lecture

I’m not going to lie: I like to lecture. This might seem like a problem, since I teach at a school where Project Based Learning is the norm, and a lot of the students seem to think that they signed up for a school where there won’t be the typical stand-and-deliver sort of teacher-to-student interaction.

First of all, I remind them, just because it is PBL doesn’t mean that you can’t have lectures, and second, you ASKED for the instruction when you said you needed a refresher or lecture on (…whatever they needed to know).  That said, as much as I might enjoy standing and delivering, I still want the students more engaged, and less, well, plaintive.

As I considered WHY I like to lecture – it’s fun to share ideas that I know something about – I came to an idea. Could I get the students to experience that same kind of fun as I do, sharing ideas, being the center of attention, etc? Could I make it so that students engage more completely in a lecture format?

Hence was born something that I have been working on for the last two years, and I call it (rather prosaically, I know) the “Interactive Lecture”.

Here is the idea: I create a series of slides (with mostly images rather than text) that invoke students’ previous knowledge, and then build upon that knowledge to create some new knowledge.  I then tell the students that I am not going to lecture to them – they must lecture. Of course, what they say will probably not be correct at first, but if the whole class pitches in, then together they should be able to come up with the right idea for a given set of images, and thus the ideas those images represent.

Once students have done their best to describe a particular slide, then I can augment with any commentary necessary to complete the ideas the slide is supposed to represent.  Then we start the process over with the next slide.

Check out the video. It shows only one slide from a deck I was using to teach about energy production in cells, so that you can see the cycle: students come up, they speak to it, and at the end, I add anything that I need/want to add.

This sort of practice can be a bit intimidating for students who don’t feel as confident about the material, so there are a couple of tricks that help out:

  1. I set expectations that people are going to say lots of different things, and that’s fine.  This process requires some risk-taking.  I tell students that if they disagree with someone’s interpretation, the only way they can disagree is to go up and offer an alternative interpretation – and then we as a class can decide on the explanation that seems to make the most sense, without telling anyone that they are wrong.
  2. I give a handout with the slides printed with some room for notes.  That way, students can look ahead to see what slides they might be able to address.
  3. Sometimes I have them talk to each other in pairs about a slide before we have anyone go to the front – so that the engagement hits 100%, and I can listen to conversations.  If one of the less-confident says something good, I can send them to the front so that he/she can publicly show competence.
  4. I give them room to be funny.  Sometimes a student wants to go up and just say something goofy, and honestly, it provides a welcome break from all the cognitive-heavy-lifting they might be doing as they decode the imagery.

The handouts (Trick number 2 mentioned above) provide a nice form of assessment as well; they serve as part of the two prompts that I typically follow up with this experience, where I give the students a sort of differentiated follow-up assignment.  Here are a couple of possibilities:

Level 1 Prompt: Now that you have participated in the lecture, write out detailed descriptions of the slides and the ideas the images are meant to represent. One to two sentences per slide, please.

Level 2 Prompt: Now that you have participated in the lecture, provide a description of the last slide, then explore in the textbook the “Electron Transport Chain”.  You may want to refer as well to the Crash Course Video on cellular respiration as well.  Then provide a detailed description of the electron transport chain, and its role in generating ATP.

Students choose one or the other.  Note that the Level 2 prompt actually requires less writing, but is more complex, so that the kids who want to go for deeper understanding aren’t just saddled with more writing.

I teach seniors, and this works very well with them, but I’ve also shared the technique with our freshman biology teacher, and she has used it with great success.  She reports increased engagement and students having more fun with the content that might otherwise be a bit dry with a teacher-stand-and-deliver model.

Here are links to two ppts for which I have used this technique.  The first is the ppt I used in the video, dealing with ATP and bioremediation.  The second has to do with Natural Selection.


The Anatomy of an End-of-Year Faculty Reflection


This has been one of my most difficult years in the classroom, not because of the kids or the school, but a million other factors. Others on the Nex+Gen Academy staff would probably agree that it was a hard one.  However, instead of leaving the school with a whimper, our faculty stayed on for a day of reflection and planning for next year, and saw some of the best collaboration I’ve ever seen. I left the building ebullient.


I post this (extraordinarily long) piece to document what went into the planning and execution of the session for two reasons; first, because it will be helpful for me next year, and second, because faculty from other schools might find it useful.


Our staff always allocates a day or two after the students leave so that we can reflect upon the year, and if possible, come up with a theme or a focus for our PD in the coming year.  The focus is usually the result of looking at the past year, and saying, “What can we do better? How can we improve learning for students?”  Three years ago, it was “Collaboration”.  The next year, we changed our learning outcomes, and so we made it a bit more broad – “Teaching and Assessing of the Learning Outcomes through a lens of growth mindset”  We did that two years in a row, and the general sentiment was that it was time to assess whether that theme would continue to serve us and our students, or if we needed to change it.
The time we planned for our reflection was 5 hrs, including breaks…so it was kind of like planning for a week of a class.  Below is a sort of description of the day, but I have organized it by the guiding principles we used in planning the meeting. 
Collaborate in the planning
I am the “Teacher Leader” on campus, which I took to mean in this instance that I would serve as point on the planning – I didn’t want to do it all by myself, because that doesn’t create as much buy-in, and honestly, by myself, I can’t come up with a plan nearly as well as our collaboration can.  I asked different people to do different things: our drama teacher helped plan some of the fun stuff; our language teacher helped with overall design; two of our English teachers helped brainstorm, and served as critical friends for a couple of the activities. I also wrote to our NTN coach, and a few others at New Tech to get some help with ideas.
Plan ahead, and share plans
Adults tend to dislike surprises about their work, so I wanted to help the faculty accurately anticipate what was going to happen on our PD day.  I sent out this email before our meeting:
Friday, we start our PD at 11:30 in room 112.  LUNCH IS PROVIDED.
We’ll go until 4:30.  In that time, we will
·  Do some fun stuff, quarterbacked by Ryil
·  Address our learning from last year’s focus
·  Consider the Youth Truth, our Planning document, and an overall reflection
·  Use that information to decide upon a yearlong focus for next year
·  Decide about beginning of the year schedule (when do we come in before the start of school?)
·  Plan on committee work moving forward
·  Hug and kiss goodbye for the summer
See  you then!
But even before this email, I sent them some of the data we would be analyzing:  the “Youth Truth”, which teachers would have to read, and the “Planning document,” into which teachers wrote.  More about those below.  In general, I started the planning process at least a week before the actual day.
Allow time for sense-making and pattern-finding
Because one of our primary goals for the day was to come up with a focus for the coming year, it was certainly tempting to just start the day with the question, “What do you want to focus on next year?”  However, that likely would have yielded 23 different answers from our 23 staff members, and those answers may or may not have been as informed as they could be.
We resisted that temptation to start with the question of focus, because we knew we had to be patient.  In “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership”, author Ron Heifetz points out that when considering a system, you need to spend lots (and lots, and lots) of time diagnosing problems before attempting to come up with a fix.   While our work was not necessarily about ferreting out a particular problem, it was about examining the system in many different ways, and looking for patterns that might emerge from the data.  Those patterns would then inform decision-making about our year-long focus.
Our day was 5 hours.  4 were spent in looking at data, discussing learning, and making sense of it.  1 hour was allocated for coming up with a focus. 
Consider several sorts of data
Our French teacher had the idea that before we have teachers discuss ideas together, they should ground themselves in their own observations.  Our first reflection was an individual silent quick-write, considering the year.  Teachers were asked to not necessarily share this when done, but to keep it in mind as a data source.
Second, we looked at student responses from the Youth Truth survey.  The results of the survey create a lot of graphs like this…
…as well as narrative responses from the students.  We have used this survey in the past, and it has been a major factor in our decision-making for the school.  A few things came out with this: students were looking for rigor.  Engagement wasn’t as high as it has been in the past.  
As part of the data gathering, we wanted to make sure that teachers were getting their individual voices heard regarding issues that they needed to talk about.  We asked teachers to fill out a chart out on a Google doc – one row for each staff member, with the headers as you see below.   So that you get the gist, I’ve included my own entry.  Some of mine have stars after them, because other faculty members agreed with the question.  So our third examination of data had us looking for patterns in conversations the staff wanted to have.  
Faculty Member
Summer Work that needs to be addressed
Conversations about teaching and learning
Conversations about Culture (both student and staff)
Conversations about logistics (tech, policies, etc)
Other notes?  Other needs?
Train New Teachers
 Integrate new principal
New teaching
partnerships develop
curriculum/ set norms / establish routines etc.**
What have we learned from the year-long focus?**
How do we teach the students about use of technology and how do we use the tech that best matches our content? *
How do we connect the work from one grade level to the next, so that we build upon student performance?*
Does the staff have enough fun together?***
How do we promote not just good culture, but good community?
How are PLC memberships determined?  What should be our criteria?**
Is there a tardy policy that can actually work?*
Fourth, we wanted to collect the learning from our focus from the past two years.  Much of that learning had been captured because teachers had presented to the staff over the year, but we had not collected all of our thoughts in one place.  Because most of the conversations about the focus over the year were done within PLCs, we got together in the PLCs, and answered these 3 questions:
1.       What did you learn?
2.       How did it affect or change your practice?
3.       How did it affect your students’ performance?
People answered this set of questions as many as 4 times – because we had four learning outcomes (Agency, Collaboration, Inquiry & Analysis, Communication) that we considered over the past two years.


And here is a close-up of the part about Inquiry and Analysis



Again, this afforded an opportunity to look for patterns, and get a sense of the overall work that we had been doing.  You might notice that there was a lot of attention paid to collaboration (which has been a challenge with varied skill sets in the classroom), and inquiry & analysis, as we push our students to write and think analytically.
Use Benchmarks
We used only one, actually.  Before we looked at the school wide focus from the previous year (the learning wall), we did a sort of mid-way synthesis, using the 4-2-q Protocol.   This has groups identifying 4 celebrations, 2 areas of growth, and 2 questions.   Below is a sampling from different groups of some of the items we saw:
Spokes & Electives, including five dual-credit CNM courses will be offered here at nex+Gen next year
Electives Work!!
Leveraging student choice
Senior Projects
Areas for Growth
Chronic absences and PBL – a match made in hell
Differentiation & supports for Q1 students
What is the nex+Gen student actually looking for when they go to our school? We increasingly lose kids at the top as well as the bottom.
Are we meeting the needs of our q1 and q4 students (the students on the edges)?
How can we serve both without sacrificing either?
This “benchmark” analysis served as yet another form of data from which to glean our instructional focus later in the day.
Have Fun
Throughout the day, we hit upon a common activity that was meant to lighten the mood, and remind us that we like being around each other.  In this case, our principal was retiring, so we did a sort of combined “Newlywed Game” and Roast.   A few of us created some multiple choice questions about our principal.  Each question was meant to be a bit of a mini-roast, based upon his idiosyncrasies, so even before anyone answered them, the questions were funny.   The principal would answer, but keep his answer private.  Teams would answer, then we’d compare.   Points were kept.  Good times were had.   
We also had a celebration of “Teacher of the Year”, which was brilliancy of our drama teacher.   His contention: our factuly is so great that we can choose a Teacher of the Year randomly, and in less then 5 minutes, come up with a meaningful speech that highlights how awesome that teacher is.  So we did it: we pulled a name out of a hat, sent that person away to the bathroom (we asked her to walk kind of slowly), then everyone brainstormed why that person deserved to be “Teacher of the Year”.  Our recipient returned, her teaching partner made a (fantastic) speech, and she received a standing ovation.  Every staff should do this.
By the way, the last thing we did was to finish off the day with the last “roast” questions about our principal.  As George Costanza would say – “END ON A HIGH NOTE!”
Strategize grouping
In any kind of cooperative classroom, teachers think carefully about grouping.  In my own class, I’ll group differently, according to a project, and the goals of an activity.
For this day, there were different goals at different times.  To begin with, we thought that people should be comfortable, and willing to discuss right away, so we put people into their PLCs, where they were used to carrying on conversations all year.   Other times, we thought that people discussing in departments might get us further when considering specifics about instruction.
Finally, when we wanted to have people generate a whole-school focus, we wanted people to avoid “groupthink”, and instead do some synthesis based upon a varied set of perspectives, so we grouped people randomly, using Excel.   It worked.
The result of all of this?  Our last planned activity was the most ambitious: synthesize all of this, and generate a focus for next school year.   We broke up into 4 groups to discuss.  I offered criteria for a yearlong focus, which were developed with some great minds at New Tech Network.   We suggested that the focus…
  •  Should address the instructional core
  • Should have potential for rich conversation in PLC
  • Results of our learning (from focus) should be observable in the students  
  • Should not be so broad that effort would be too diffuse
  • Will be accessible/understandable to new staff
We also stated that each group must back up the need for their suggested focus with evidence…using any of the data or observations from the day.
Our plan was to have each group brainstorm, then share out.  Anticipating some differences from table to table, we planned to then coalesce 4 groups into two, and have the two super-groups synthesize the ideas from the initial share-out.
At the initial share out, this is what came to be:
group 1: Differentiation
group 2: World Citizenship, or Differentiation
group 3: Differentiation
group 4: Differentiation
It was a moment of beauty.  Literally, I fought back tears at the synchronicity of it all.
Of course, one might say that we didn’t meet one of the criteria, because hoo boy – “Differentiation” a broad topic.  However, despite the fact that we have been using the word “focus”, I think what we really mean is “theme”.  When one of the groups reported out their thinking, they said, “A focus on differentiation would allow teachers to make experiments in their classroom, and report out the outcomes to their PLC and the broader faculty group,” which met with many nodding heads around the room.   So in this way, individual teachers, or PLCs can discuss the ideas of differentiation, generate their own “theories of action”, and then examine the effects.  This can inform the broader work of the school, so that we can ultimately point to and document best practices.
After our share out, it was just a matter of putting some wording into it, and identifying some “sub-themes” to accommodate some of the minor differences from group to group.  Our final focus (or theme):
Differentiation in PBL
With special attention to:
Appropriate and effective use of technology
Addressing needs of the first and fourth quartiles
Assessment techniques
The relative ease with which we came to this decision certainly reinforced the careful planning that went into the affair. If there was a “special sauce” that made the day particularly delicious, I think that the ingredients are written above, (collaboration, fun, adequate time, etc) but in choosing the ingredients, I keep thinking back to a few questions that drove design:  “How can we engage all stakeholders in both design and execution?”    “How do we foster and capture learning?”   “How do we make it enjoyable AND useful?” … which are exactly the questions I ask myself in designing robust learning experiences for kids. 
And behold! Much of what works for kids works with an adult learning community – with the theme written on the board, and one last roast of our principal, everyone left patting each other on the back, looking forward to next year.