Da Vinci Mechanics Exhibit – Machines, Engineering, “Making” and More

Inspiration for "making" in your classroom

Da Vinci A few years ago (2015) my wife and I were in Christchurch, New Zealand, and we came upon this hands-on Da Vinci Mechanics Exhibit at the Canterbury Museum.  I’d meant to share a post about it when we returned and I was reminded of that when I came across the Flickr album I had set up just the other day.

NOTE: Click on any photo in this post to enlarge it. Then you and your students can read the descriptions and see the drawings in more detail.

From the museum web site: “He studied the workings of nature’s devices and sought to recreate these as practical machines: machines for moving water, for war, for excavating, for drilling and, perhaps most famously, for flight. Exhibition highlights include the tank, the spring powered car, the hang glider, the air screw (the precursor of the helicopter) and a robotic drummer.”

What intrigued me were not only the devices themselves, but Da Vinci’s drawings that accompanied them (careful drawings of plans easily turn a STEM activity into STEAM). The fact that this was a hands-on exhibit multiplied the engagement exponentially.Da Vinci


Da Vinci’s designs and devices are a great model for a class engineering/making STEAM experience. What devices and the drawings and explanations that go with them could your students design? Then share them online through Flickr or a blog or wiki or video-conference or … too many ideas to list. Many more photos here.

Da Vinci
Da Vinci
Da Vinci
Da VinciI noted online that this is a traveling exhibit so maybe see if it is scheduled to be coming to a museum near you. And I bet students could find just a bit more about Da Vinci if they search even a bit. Please share other ideas and links to any “Da Vinci inspired” devices your students “make.”

Learning is messy!

An Eclipse by Any Other Name is an Occultation

Neptune's Moon Triton will cast shadow on Earth traveling 37,000 MPH, SOFIA plans to catch it!



I’ve been posting lately about NASA’s SOFIA flying telescope (Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy) and its upcoming mission to catch the occultation of Neptune’s moon, Triton. NASA has posted more information about the upcoming event and I’m sharing that here including a link to resources I put together to help others understand more about why scientists are excited about this occurrence.

From NASA:

“On Oct. 5, as Triton passes in front of a faraway star it will block the star’s light in an eclipse-like event called an occultation. During the celestial alignment, the team aboard the specially equipped Boeing 747SP aircraft will make observations of the distant star’s light as it passes through Triton’s atmosphere.

Triton has not passed in front of bright stars for many years, making occultation observations difficult. Now, as Triton passes in front of a bright star, the data collected by SOFIA’s 100-inch (2.5-meter) on board telescope and three powerful instruments will enable researchers to better study and characterize the moon’s atmosphere, including its temperature, pressure and density.” 

SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747SP. Note the large opening in the side that contains a 2.5 meter (100 inch) wide reflecting telescope.


“Catching Triton’s shadow as it races across Earth’s surface at more than 37,000 mph (17 km/s) while the aircraft is traveling at Mach 0.85 (approximately 652 mph), is no small feat. To ensure that they are in the right place at the right time, researchers have made advanced observations of Triton and the star with multiple telescopes to determine the location of their shadow. From these precise calculations, SOFIA’s flight planners have designed a flight plan that will put the flying observatory in the center of the shadow for approximately two minutes as Triton aligns in front of the star.”

I put together a wiki page of resources that explain the where’s and whys of this event.

SOFIA will have to fly perpendicular through the shadow (so its telescope is pointing at Triton) that is moving at 37,000 MPH while it is flying at over 600 MPH … apparently some math is involved in figuring out just where to be and when to be there to make this work!

Learning is messy!!

NASA’s SOFIA Flight 9-25-17

My Excellent Adventure!

My flight on SOFIA went off last Monday, but not without a few hiccups. During our mission briefing before the flight, it was explained that our flight path, originally scheduled to head up into Canada, was now headed out near Hawaii. SOFIAPath I’m not clear on all the reasons it changed. We had 5 or 6 targets during the mission … the flight path is designed to get the 2.5 meter wide telescope that is embedded in the side of the 747 pointed in the right direction for each target.

Not long after we boarded I was told I’d been chosen to sit in the cockpit with the pilots during takeoff. It was a wondrous experience! Our takeoff was delayed however because the telescope operators were having problems getting some of the instrumentation to turn on … no use taking-off if the telescope wasn’t working. I was up in the cockpit, but my comrades down below told me later that I missed this incredible problem solving effort by the entire team.


One of the highlights of the 10 hour flight was talking with Chao-Wei Tsai, a scientist from UCLA who was on the flight to study a super massive black hole. IMG_0970









Later in the flight I was able to sit with Samuel Richards IMG_0996 who was one of the telescope operators that night.  During our conversation they lost a connection to the telescope and I watched as he and his assistant (and the rest of the team) problem solved the issue. Window after window of computer code was opened and checked … occasionally a line of code was edited until they found the problem lines of code and they were back online … what was awesome was how everyone communicated and stayed calm under the pressure of getting the telescope back online. Getting your chance to use the telescope is beyond highly competitive, and if things go wrong getting another chance to fly is somewhat problematic.

Here are more photos and videos taken before and during the flight by me and other members of our group.

SOFIA took off today to position itself to chase the shadow of Neptune’s moon Triton on Thursday. More about that soon. Much more to tell here about my experience than I have time to write about. Hope to share more later.

Learning is messy!

Chasing Triton’s Shadow – Neptune’s Moon Will Cast Shadow on Earth

SOFIA can travel where the action is

A few weeks back I travelled with a NASA sponsored team to Idaho to launch high altitude balloons during the recent total eclipse. We sent up various cameras, data recorders and more (even an Idaho potato) to record data and media at high altitude during totality (being up above any possible weather or smoke is an added bonus). We travelled to Idaho from Reno and Las Vegas because that was where totality would occur. We only would have experienced a partial eclipse if we’d stayed home and would have missed out on important data you can only record during totality. Since then we have shared almost all the data and media we recorded and will continue to do so.

Partly because of that experience (and other NASA projects I’ve been allowed to be part of), my experience with the RECON project and because my job requires me to have a social media presence and share resources and experiences via those connections, NASA recruited me to take a flight on SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy). My flight is scheduled for September 25th – here’s the observation plan for that night. Needless to say I’m thrilled and honored to have this opportunity!

SOFIA over the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

I’ve been told we will takeoff about 7:00 PM and not land until 5:00 AM the next morning, so 10 hours in air.

SOFIA’s infrared telescope weighs in at 19 tons (38,000 pounds) and was built in Germany.

SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747SP. Note the large door in it’s side that when open exposes a 2.5 meter (100 inch) wide reflecting infrared telescope to the sky.

So why put a telescope in a 747 and fly all night recording data? Seems expensive for something you can do on the ground from much larger telescopes.

SOFIA generally flies between 12,000 and 13,000 meters (39,000 and 43,000 feet), and that is important. It’s important because at those altitudes you are above most of the Earth’s atmosphere and humidity. The “Twinkling” of the stars in the sky experienced from the ground is caused by the starlight traveling through the atmosphere’s humidity and variations in temperature. You are also above clouds, most air pollution and other factors (like bad weather) that limit grounded telescopes from obtaining a clear view (also why the Hubble space telescope gets such awesome observations even though it is much smaller that many ground based telescopes on Earth).

A huge advantage SOFIA has over ground based telescopes is that it can go where the action is  – like when it travelled to New Zealand to capture Pluto’s occultation of a star




ANNNND it will travel to the US east coast on October 5th to Chase Triton’s Shadow over the Atlantic Ocean.

From SOFIA’s media outlet: “As Neptune’s moon Triton passes in front of a distant star, it will cast a faint shadow on Earth’s surface. The team of researchers will carefully map the path of that shadow and then fly into it to study Triton’s atmosphere, directly, for the first time in 15 years. SOFIA will takeoff from Florida to catch the shadow that will fall over the Atlantic Ocean. The shadow is moving; the plane is moving; and the predicted path may change in flight, making catching the shadow very challenging. Researchers are trying to determine if Triton’s atmosphere is expanding or collapsing and if haze last seen by the Voyager mission is still present.” triton-final[1][1][1] (link to flyer)

I won’t be on the flight chasing Triton’s shadow (it happens over a week later than mine), but that gives me the opportunity to pass on what I learn about SOFIA in preparation for the October 5th flight. I will be presenting about Chasing Triton’s Shadow and SOFIA locally in Reno and I’m available to visit local schools and even video-conference in pretty much anywhere.











I’ll be adding more posts about SOFIA soon and you can follow me on Twitter @bcrosby. I’ll be uploading photos to FLICKR as well, I’ll post the link when I post photos.

Learning is messy!






Photos, Video and DATA from the Eclipse Balloon Project

Total Eclipse 2017, Camas ID, USA, by Dr. Jeffrey LaCombe

I’ve been back for awhile from our Eclipse Balloon Project launches. We’re still processing data we recorded from cameras and data loggers from 3 HAB balloon launches outside of Twin Falls, Idaho, (really from Camas, Idaho), but wanted to share some of the incredible visuals. Click on any photo to see enlarged.

This is the shadow of the Moon from about 23,000 meters (75,000 feet)

Video of the shadow moving across the Earth’s surface :

More video – Click Here

More photos from Dr. LaCombe:

Total Eclipse 2017, Camas ID, USA, by Dr. Jeffrey LaCombe – Peekaboo

Total Eclipse 2017, Camas ID, USA, by Dr. Jeffrey LaCombe – Full Disk

Total Eclipse 2017, Camas ID, USA, by Dr. Jeffrey LaCombe – Prominences






The track of our flight. Starts at the top near Camas, Idaho.











The prediction was very accurate – this is actually 10 predictions on one screenshot – yellow dots are predicted burst and blue predicted landing spot:

ASTRA flight prediction










I did send up a small solar panel attached to a voltage data logger. We usually do this to record data on what happens to the voltage as the panel gets higher and much colder. But this is interesting for obvious reasons:


Note the voltage goes up as the altitude rises over time … then “something happens” that causes the voltage to drop to almost zero.

This balloon came down within sight of a temporary command center of sheriffs and other emergency personnel that had been set-up to help with the crowds and any issues that may have arisen. You’ll note that at the end of the data it seems to have gotten dark again. The sheriff investigated what had landed  nearby and picked up our payload and placed it in their command vehicle until we showed up. Once we had described it they briefly handcuffed Dr. Wang and I for endangering the public … then had a good laugh and took the handcuffs off.

Dr. Eric Wang and I handcuffed with our payloads in hand.










Nothing too surprising about our temperature readings – at 28,000 meters (92,000 feet) it was about -42C :









I have other data as well I might post later.

We successfully launched 3 balloons – one got to over 110,000 feet, but we also had 2 balloons pop on the ground during and just after inflation – one seemed defective, the other probably got stressed in the relatively high winds at the launch site and popped just as we were connecting payloads. Fortunately we had enough gas to fill 2 more balloons.

Learning is messy!!

Eclipse Ballooning Project

3 balloons capturing images, data and awesomeness!

One of the awesome parts of my job is that I get to be part of some wondrous projects. Being part of the Eclipse Ballooning Project is one of those. 

In case you haven’t heard there will be a solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. It will be a total eclipse for some parts of the country – the gray line across the country below is where you’ll want to be to see the total eclipse:






If you are lucky enough to be on that line of totality and you have a cloudless sky, the sky will go dark, stars will come out and the corona of the Sun will be visible. The rest of the country will see a partial eclipse of varying degrees based on location.

I’m part of Nevada’s NASA Space Grant and the folks that I’ll accompany (the real experts) are from the University of Nevada, Reno, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the Washoe County School District and Nevada’s Northwest Regional Professional Development Program.

My team’s plan at this point is to launch about 3 HAB balloons from eastern Idaho that should each reach altitudes of around 30,000 meters (100,000 feet). One will carry a payload that will stream live video … if we can get it working … during a test flight it only worked intermittently and then when a parachute failed it hit the ground hard and now is being pieced back together (messy learning?). The others will carry temperature, air pressure, humidity data loggers along with GoPro cameras and a 360 degree camera. All the balloons carry communication gear so we can follow, find and retrieve them. I’ll post links to videos, photos and data after the launch.

We may live stream the launch, probably on Periscope if we have enough hands and solid internet. I’ll tweet that out if it looks like it will happen. @bcrosby

We do have back-up locations in mind in Wyoming and Oregon if the weather doesn’t cooperate.

Learning is messy!!

Bee-Bot Collaborative Dance

Coding fun!

 Awhile back I (well, the place where I work) was able to purchase 3 Bee-Bot “Hives.” A hive is 6 Bee-bots, a charger plate and a yellow backpack to carry everything around. Once I had them I quickly put together a class for Pre-K – 2 teachers. The first class met about a month ago and our next class met last night.

Along with the teachers sharing out what their students have been up to (they are so excited!!!) and me sharing a few more resources on our class “Bee-Bot” wiki page, I asked them to try out a collaborative Bee-Bot activity I thought up. Now to be fair I don’t know if others have thought of this before and done this already – so I don’t want to take undue credit. I was thinking about how to make what you do already with Bee-Bots have an even stronger collaborative bent when I came up with this:

Pair 2 pairs of students and their shared Bee-Bots and have them work together to choreograph a “dance.” Start on opposite sides of a table or facing each other on the floor. Start out having the Bee-Bots approach each other until they are face to face. Next keep adding to your program so the Bee-Bots go around each other, back and forth etc. They can keep adding commands to make their dance longer and more intricate.

Here is a video of one of the teachers “coding” her Bee-Bot with the program she and her partner designed:
Here is a clip of their Bee-Bot dance:
And here is a dance choreographed by another pair of teachers:
I’m looking forward to seeing their students taking on this challenge in the weeks ahead.

Learning is messy!

2017 Math & Science Institute – for teachers

In New Orleans ... and it's FREE!

Earlier this year I agreed to lead two grant funded STEM professional development courses for teachers sponsored by Metairie Park Country Day School, June 7th, 8th and 9th, 2017. The courses will be held at Tulane University in New Orleans as part of the 2017 Math & Science Institute. AND NOTE THIS – You just have to get there – tuition is FREE! (note the flyer to the right for more information). Note: private school teachers have to pay $149 per course.

Each course is about 6 hours long spread over the 3 days (2 hours per day, per course). Here’s a page with all the course descriptions.

I’ll be teaching 2 courses: “Powerful, Connected, Collaborative and Global STEM Learning” and “STEM: Hands-on, Minds-on, Creativity-on”

From the online course description:

STEM: Hands-On, Minds-On, Creativity-On is a six-hour course designed to help teachers integrate powerful STEM learning with a focus on engaging, hands-on engineering lessons. Participants will not only experience the lessons firsthand, but also how to collect and analyze the rich data the lessons produce. Strong connections to science, language arts, technology, art, the Next Generation Science Standards and three dimensional learning will be included. Most lesson activities utilize easily obtained materials.

Powerful, Connected, Collaborative, Global, STEM Learning is a six-hour course designed to allow you to see how the power of STEM inquiry projects are leveraged when students are connected and collaborate globally.

There are several Common Core State Standards that require students to utilize technology to collaborate starting in elementary school. This course will provide hands-on engineering lessons and phenomena – coupled with free or cheap collaborative online tools that promote sharing and analyzing data, explanations, global awareness and much more. Participants and their students will learn to collaborate and share through powerful writing, oral language, photography, math, art and other media. Online safety and ethics will be featured.

Check out the 2017 Math & Science Institute home page to see all the courses being offered.

Hope to see you there!

Learning is messy!

WyTECC Keynote

STEM Is A Culture, Not a Time of Day or Day of the Week

So much going on right now so my plans to blog more often have taken another hit. One of the things going on that I’m really looking forward to is my participation in the Wyoming Technology Engagement Curriculum Connection (WyTECC) in Rock Springs, Wyoming in early May. May 6th to be exact.


I’ll be providing the keynote and 2 to 3 breakout sessions. They asked for a “STEM-ish” theme so I’m redesigning my “STEM Is A Culture, Not a Time of Day or Day of the Week” presentation and plan to build in more STEM experiences. My sessions will focus on STEM inquiry and the important parts that get left out too often because the activity is engaging, the students get excited, time runs short and we skip the parts that really make STEM learning powerful.

Hope to see you there!

Learning is messy!

Mini Drone Classroom Kit Example

Designed for teacher classroom checkout

In case it helped others think about how to incorporate mini drones at their school I thought I’d share this design. Not presenting this as an ultimate solution, just as an example to build on. Please share links to designs you might have in the comments. As an aside I want to stress: I don’t train teachers that students should never fly drones via a joystick … but I am pretty frank that piloting via joystick is more just play – and that is not a bad thing – it has its place. Having students use apps like Tynker where they have to learn programing skills and problem solve to navigate their drone is really the point.

One awesome unintended consequence of receiving a grant is that sometimes there is “money leftover” – usually because of a cost savings or other circumstance. I just came into some “leftover” funds from 2 grants we have going. Some of that money I spent to get more Parrot Rolling Spider Minidrones. When I wrote the NSUAVCSI grant these drones were $99.99 each, the bid we negotiated got the price down to $62 (we bought 65 of them at once) and now the price is down to $49. Parrot has discontinued this model apparently, and the new models don’t have the wheels and are more than double the $$$ that I can get The Rolling Spiders for … so 62 new ones just arrived.IMG_7229


Now that I have some experience with checking out “kits” of drones for teachers to use in their classrooms, I re-designed the kits to make them easier for teachers and students to utilize.



The plastic tubs we have fit about 8 mini drones each, but since many class sizes here can be 30 students or more, each kit consists of 2 tubs (16 drones total) figuring 2 students per drone.IMG_7227 BTW – 3 students per drone works too, but I like to provide as much flexibility as possible.

As with almost anything that runs on batteries, you can never have too many. So each kit has 4 battery chargers that each charge 4 batteries at a time – as well as 16 extra batteries. The USB cable that comes with each mini drone also fits the charger (which didn’t come with a cable). Removing batteries from the drones with just your fingers to recharge them in a charger is a bit of a struggle and tends to  foster anxiety that something is going to break – so each kit also contains popsicle sticks that work well to gently pry the batteries from their confines.


A power strip with both regular  3-prong sockets and USB ports rounds out the kit for now.  One thing that is missing are iPads to program and run the drones. I do have 20 on the way, but that is short of what is needed. A fair number of local schools have iPads, but they tend to be older, non-Bluetooth iPads that won’t work with the mini drones. 20 iPads was as far as I could squeeze the “leftover money”.

Hope that helps anyone looking into adding a programming component to your curriculum that also teaches students the care and feeding of aerial robots!

Learning is messy!