On taking risks, and taking advantage of opportunity.


In our Build Week concluding Block 1, we broke up into six groups, with each group engaging in a week-long activity. Among those activities were making animation sequences, simulating earthquakes, folding an origami undersea panorama, creating an identification chart for flora and fauna, and building a double pendulum. But one group’s experience with trial and error, and with making success out of a challenge, was especially noteworthy.

That group made a planetarium out of plastic sheeting, tape, a simple box fan, and a planetarium projector. The faculty leader was Sachi Hashimoto, one of our math faculty; seeing the project develop over the week was astonishing to me, and it is the subject of this week’s “In the Classroom.”

The first challenge was just getting the materials delivered. Never underestimate Murphy’s Law. The first attempted delivery was a weekend, when we’re not in the building to receive packages; the second attempted delivery wouldn’t come until day two of Build Week, when we were scheduled to be at the California Academy of Sciences.

Sachi went into problem-solving mode and came up with several contingency plans, some of which involved rerouting the delivery address and having a friend keep tabs on UPS while we were at the California Academy of Sciences. She also had to reinvent her group’s Monday activity, since they could not cut and tape plastic sheeting that had not arrived.

Instead, she held a design competition to decide on the shape of the half dome they would build. That kind of creative thinking and reinvention, despite all the planning that went into build week, is a hallmark of great teaching and leadership. Sachi guided the group as they came up with four designs, and then she had them construct those designs out of Zome.

To model the translation from Zome to plastic sheeting, they used an inexpensive tablecloth. The teams discovered that working with a flexible material was considerably harder than they expected. They ended up voting on the simplest design, which, despite looking rather unlike a hemisphere when made out of Zome, ended up being quite round when made out of plastic.   

By Wednesday, the group had all of its materials. They started by calculating the dimensions of the faces of the dome. Their design was made out of one hexagonal base, three trapezoids, three equilateral triangles, and a small triangle to close it off on top. As they were cutting their design out of the large plastic, they realized that they had calculated the dimensions of the trapezoids incorrectly. It was impossible to make a trapezoid with the measurements listed.

It was back to the drawing board for the students. After double checking their math and getting several different answers, they decided to rebuild the Zome model and take measurements directly from the Zome. This gave them the true measurement of the trapezoidal sides, and they were able to cut the rest of the sides easily.

By Thursday morning, they had a wind tunnel with a box fan inflating the dome, but then other issues came up. The various AA batteries we had were mostly burnt out, though we thought they were new. When they finally found enough working batteries, they discovered the light inside the planetarium projector we bought was not powerful enough to make the space glow with the night sky. It was still a terrific space, a huge igloo powered by a single box fan, but it wasn’t quite what the group had planned.

The resilience to make the project a success, to turn it into something extraordinary, took further collaboration. During our hour-long symposium and demo, someone had the great idea of modifying the planetarium projector into a simple flashlight, bringing a large Zome construction project into the space, and seeing what kinds of shadows it would project.

The results were stunning. The shadows it projected looked as if it they could be a theater set, possibly depicting a forest, a massive steel web structure, or what I imagine we see when we look at microfibers under a microscope. Aside from what they ended up making, the group’s resilience and willingness to look for alternate routes for success was striking. They tested an idea that arguably grew into something even better than they imagined.

It sounded like an apt metaphor for a new school, now just seven weeks old.

-Zachary Sifuentes and Sachi Hashimoto

More photographs from build week