RIP Bill, Bob & Jebediah

Sadly, I killed three Kerbals yesterday, playing Kerbal Space Program.  They were to carry the Turquoise, a small space station, into low orbit, about 100 kilometers.  Unfortunately, I had not adequately secured the station within its fairing, and it broke apart on the launch pad, igniting a booster and causing a massive explosion.

A rocket created for the Kerbal Space Program video game.

The rocket intended to carry the “Turqoise” space station into low orbit.

I always add features to modules holding live Kerbals, that allow me to press an abort button (<Delete> key) that detaches the module from the rest of the rocket and fires small solid fueled rockets to lift it away.  However, yesterday I had neglected to have the fairing deployed with an abort, trapping the Kerbal’ module while trying to make its escape.

Turquoise station components

Components of the “Turquoise” space station.

Like most of my mishaps, I blame my clinically diagnosed ADHD.

(???,) 

Adventures in Space

Rocket falling over from above the launch pad.

One of my early attempts into orbit, achieving a spectacular fall after a 35 meter ascent

I’ve been playing around with a video game. I have spent, by far, more time with this game than all video game play in my life prior to retirement. And I’m feeling a bit guilty for it. All of my tech work has always been for production, since teaching my self to program TRS-80 (Radio Shack Model I & III) computers in 1982 so that I could write programs for my students (the school system having appropriated $0 for software). With these machines that have so changed my life, I have spent nearly all of my time coding, writing or preparing slide decks for my presentations.

Astronaut, flaming out, after locking his keys in the spacecraft during an EVA.

At about 26 Kilometers, my Kerban pilot decided to do a space walk. Alas he locked his keys in the capsule and burned up during the descent.

I’ve had a professional interest in video games, however, especially as research was starting to reveal the powerful learning taking place as kids were playing these games. World of Warcraft (WOW) and Minecraft were especially interesting to innovative educators. A friend of mine started a special class for at-risk high schoolers where he gave them missions or quests to perform as teams in WOW. Then they would debrief with discussion of strategies, not just in achieving the mission but also how they collaborated with each other. The students also wrote reports, as newspaper reporters, about their various missions and their strategies and methods. They were developing skills in math, problem solving, communication and more by actually using those skills in meaningful ways.

A nearly successful orbit

These three Kerbans made it into an orbit whose apogee was around 1.4 million kilometers and perigee was somebody’s basement on the far side of Kerbal.

Authentic Learning” (an instructional approach that allows students to explore, discuss and meaningfully construct their own learning within meaningful contexts) was a term being used a lot among education leaders, until No Child Left Behind corrupted public education, shifting emphasis to rote memorization over functional understanding.

I am thoroughly enjoying the experience learning to play Kerbal Space Program (KSP). Its Wikipedia article defines the game as:

“..a space flight simulation video game developed by Mexican developer, Squad. In the game, players direct a nascent space program, staffed and crewed by green humanoid aliens know as ‘Kerbal.’ The game features a realistic orbital physics engine, slowing for various real-life orbital maneuvers such as orbital rendezvous.”

The first time that I explored KSP was in 2013, preparing for a keynote address at a conference for the National Science Teachers Association. I wanted to use the game as an example of an educational science simulation. Sadly, with only a few days to acquaint myself with the game, I was able to compellingly demonstrated how a rocket can blow up on the launch pad.

Today, after much learning and practice (orbital mechanics is hard), I can finally establish a good circular orbit around the planet, and even loop around the moon. But there is much more that I can’t do you.

Rocket is in orbit.
Almost ten years later, I’m in orbit, finally figuring out how to use the orbital maneuver tool that helps you aim your rocket in the correct direction, know when to start your burn and how long to burn, in order to achieve your desired outcome.

More to come!

1 Wikipedia contributors. “Kerbal Space Program.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 Sep. 2022. Web. 15 Sep. 2022.

A New Tech Wave?

Sinclair Research’s launch advertising for the ZX81. High-profile advertisements such as this were used to promote the benefits and value for money of the ZX81.

After I had taught social studies for a few years we started to hear talk about personal computers. They could fit on your desk, were fully programmable to perform a multitude of functions and could be had for prices ranging from a few hundred to a thousand dollars and more. Their practical applications were hardly imagined and were noticed only be a subset of a subset of nerd types.

I am starting to wonder now if we’re on the verge of a new emerging and equally surprising technology, do-it-yourself satellites. That’s right, satellites in low earth orbit, built with commercial off-the-shelf components and designed for scientific research.

nCube, 10cm CubeSat created by University students in Norway.
nCube, 10cm CubeSat created by University students in Norway.

They are called CubeSats, typically about 10 centimeters cubed and weighing about 3 pounds. They can be launched as part of the payload of commercial rockets or deployed from the International Space Station.

There are three reasons why I believe that they may be coming to a high school (or middle school) near you.

  1. Our exploration of space has continued with NASA’s exploration of the solar system with robotic space craft and the successful rocket launches by commercial interests including SpaceX and many others. Our interest in Space exploration remains high as shown in a June 2018 Pew Research report which reports that 72% of surveyed believe that U.S. remain a world leader in space exploration. Also indicating increase is a survey reported by Centauri Dreams, that Americans believe that space exploration is a good investment, increasing from 49.5% (1988) to 59.3% (2007) to 69.1% (2018).
  2. Increasing commercial interest in mining asteroids for precious metals and iron, cobalt and nickel for space construction; and weightless manufacturing.
  3. A probable increase in the demand for professionals with knowledge and skills related to a space industry, including: electronics, computer science, geology, chemistry, astronomy,exobiology, engineering, astrophysics and philosophy.

Some high schools have already started designing and constructing CubeSats, some already in orbit. Here is a list with launch dates from nanosats.eu:

  • Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology [LD:2013-11-20]
  • Max Valier Technical High School [LD:2017-06-23]
  • Woodbridge High School [LD:2018-11-11]
  • University High School [LD:2018-12-03]
  • Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology [LD:2019-10-19]
  • IRIM – Croation Makers (Croatia) [LD:2020-12-31]
  • Ithica High School [LD:2020-12-31]
  • Raisbeck Aviation High School [LD:launch canceled]
    First high school team to design, fund, build, test, launch, and communicate with an imaging CubeSat and a 3D-printed chassis—using polyether ether ketone, PEEK.
  • Palos Verdes High School [LD:2020-12-31]
  • University High School [LD:2021-12-31]
  • Arnold O. Beckman High School [LD:launch canceled]
  • Valle Christian High School [LD:launch canceled]
  • University High School [LD:2021-12-31]

18 New Planets Just Showed Up

As engineers work to design better telescopes, both earth- and space-based, another kind of astronomy is taking place and teaching us astonishing things about our galaxy. Even though the Kepler space telescope ran out of fuel 8 months ago, the 1.38 terabytes of data (my calculation) that it generated is still being examined — by a new breed of astronomer who writes code at a computer, instead of watching the sky through lens.

They are developing smarter algorithms to scan all that data to identify objects and phenomena that were previously hidden in the digital noise. René Heller, of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, and his colleagues recently uncovered 18 new planets. All of them are small, with the largest being just a bit wider than two Earths. One of the worlds is among the tiniest Kepler has yet found; it’s just 70 percent of Earth’s width. Another orbits in the habitable zone of a red dwarf star, where the temperature might allow liquid water to remain on its surface. 

The 18 newly discovered planets, seen in this illustration in orange and green, are all smaller than Neptune, with three even smaller than Earth. The green planet, dubbed EPIC 201238110.02, is the only one in the new haul that might be friendly to life.

Anna Alfonso has written a good description of data astronomy (The State of Data in Astronomy) in her blog, data iku.

There are now 3,972 confirmed exoplanets, worlds that are orbiting other stars, according to NASA’s Exoplanet Archive.

Initial Source: https://on.natgeo.com/2IlA7Xv

The Essence of Authentic Learning @ SLA

One of Philadelphia’s many building murals
(CC) Photo by Steve Ransom

I’m at Philadelphia’s EDUCON, a unique sort of learning event where sessions start with a proposed question, to be answered by the audience through conversation. The function of the presenter is to generate that problem-solving conversation.

Day one focuses on the Science Leadership Academy, a unique sort of school that hosts the conference. SLA students conduct tours of the school where we can talk with them and their teachers. It was my fourth tour of the school, two during EDUCON days, and two during normal school days walking through with its principal and founder, Chris Lehmann.  Of course, nothing about SLA is normal.

Today, I had a personal tour, just me and Tyler, a senior with an interest in astronomy. He is working with the astronomy staff at The Franklin Institute on a number of projects. Needless to say, I shared with him my neighbor, Paul Gilster’s blog, Centauri Dreams.

Each time I visit SLA, I walk away with a different aspect of the place resonating between my ear. I remember my second tour with Lehmann, walking around and people would walk up, interrupting the tour, for a conversation with the principal.  I suddenly realized that most of the time I unable to tell whether the person was a student or one of the school’s young teachers. The topics of the conversation never concerned the logistics of schooling, but were about the work of accomplishing some important goal or mission.

Today?  Well it was authentic learning, a term I heard and overheard several times in the halls and classrooms.  What struck me, was that there was always some sense of apology at the use of the word, like the speaker had not choice but to invoke it instead of some better phrase.

Authentic learning is a term with a long history in education, spanning well before NCLB – and it is a term that, frankly, has seen better days.  I suppose it is true in most professions that a term or phrase becomes used by so many people, in so many places, within so many contexts, that the label’s weight shadows it’s original meaning.  Many of us come to distrust the term and are left to use examples to convey our meaning – and examples rarely reach its essence.

I won’t presume to define authentic learning here.  But during my conversations with instructors at the school and with Tyler, and seeing similarities between the educational practices at SLA and the vocational classes I took as a high school student, I saw a commonality that was informative to me.  The linchpin effect of authentic learning is that..

The value of what is being learned is obvious to the learner
And
Does not have to be explained by the teacher.

There is great power
When the learning why
Is part of
The learning how.