Learning to Fly

In the spring of spring of 2016, I had a project in mind that I thought would be a huge shift in the world of project based learning. I had the chance to teach seniors that semester, and I’d always had the conceit that young adults on the verge of heading out in the world could use experience in the world while still connected to some type of mentorship. Thus was born the Meaning of Life Project – a chance for second semester seniors to get out in the world and explore. One senior had his own plans for taking the work to an entire new level.

Deryk’s Initial Wing Design for His Paraglider

My idea was for students to document the meaning they found in life through photography. A young man in class named Deryk Goerke came to me a week or so into the semester requesting a modified curriculum. Deryk had found plans online for how to construct a paraglider. Deryk’s lifelong dream had been to fly. He had taken a few classes toward his pilot’s license, but this project could be the culmination of that work. If it had been most other students, I would have pushed them to doing the regular coursework. However, Deryk was a young man I’d worked with as a freshman. He wrestled with whether to stay in school. Even at that point, I saw a skilled craftsperson. I had also seen him work independently with success. As a sophomore in Andrew Lerario’s class, he ground a telescope lens. I thought he just might be able to pull off something he could test on flat ground, so I worked to get him approved with various administrators and clearing his workload.

The paraglider under construction

Deryk spent the entire semester planning, designing, constructing, testing, and ultimately finishing a prototype for a paraglider. Deryk documented the work on his class blog. In it he shows a glimpse of the hundreds of hours of work he put into learning how to make a flying machine.

A test run in the sand dunes

I was concerned when Deryk finished the build work because I realized the true learning, the real adventure was just about to begin. He did a few tests on flat ground right around graduation. After graduation, he moved on to sand dune flights in the deserts east of San Diego. He finally tested the glider on a local hill called Little black

Deryk testing his wing in a local park

After his first few flights with his glider, the wear and tear on the materials made Deryk realize he’d need to move on to a more robust model. With the help of a Blue Dot Education Learning Grant, Deryk was able to purchase his own glider. He has since taken up the sport with the same vigor he once approached gymnastics.

Deryk at Little Black shortly after completing his build

I was able to catch up with Deryk this past spring break, in March of 2019. We got the chance to go back to Little Black to film him flying one more time. It’s a joy to watch someone who has made an adventure of their learning and who is doing something they love. This style of learning and doing is exactly what Blue Dot Education strives for. Deryk has led the way in developing our culture from early on. He continues to inspire all of us and break new ground as a college student.

Video made by Molly Josephs telling the story
Deryk fling at Little Black in the spring of 2019

Student Inspired Space Science Program

Image Credit: Brianne Nguyen c/o 2014. One of our first star images of Orion and the iconic nebula.

In the fall of 2013, I was looking to develop projects in the fields of space and planetary science. My practice had been lagging. I had done several project iterations over the previous two years that hadn’t inspired me. What had been inspiring to me was the camping trips I was running with about a half dozen students in an unofficial school club. Every month or so, we would head out to the desert and mountain regions around San Diego to have an evening of camping and hiking. My five year old son was always part of these excursions, and I would often find myself heading to bed soon after sunset while the small group stayed awake around a campfire. About a half year into these trips, I awoke late one night to find the group perched on a ridgeline taking long exposure photographs of the stars. I was stunned. They were out doing work while I was sleeping. Not just that, it was beautiful and challenging work that required them to understand the finer points of photography and photo processing.

That trip changed my practice. I no longer wanted to spend time talking about the cosmos in class. We could get out and do art to experience it. So I set about learning from the students in our group how to do night photography. And yet, I wanted more for my science class ivfpwvm. That something manifested itself the following spring after a Socratic Seminar discussing panspermia with a group of 9th graders. They wanted to know if it was possible for them to access space in high school. Could they launch something into orbit? We did some research and found out we could launch a weather balloon to the stratosphere – approximately twenty miles above the earth and retrieve it. We were all in, and in that moment we were creating the ideas that would become Blue Dot Education.

Over the course of the spring 2014 semester, I had two groups work on developing a plan for and scheduling the launch of weather balloons with GoPros attached. Simultaneously, we had our first telescope donated to our burgeoning astronomy group. The engagement and excitement were palpable as we began taking those first photographs of space, with the possibility of photographing earth’s curvature on the horizon. After one failed launch attempt, we were finally able to successfully get a balloon up and recover it in June of 2014. The students created this short film to document the process. It contains all the elements of a rich, deep learning experience. The students in that class rose to the challenge and set a balloon to the heavens to photograph our pale blue dot against the blackness of space.