Moonshot Thinking

More than a year ago, Jackie Gerstein proposed moonshot thinking as an education practice. The idea is that students tackle big projects, audaciously. The inspiration is Google’s “Solve For X” program — but, I think, we can trace the lineage of moonshot thinking through the X-Prizes, the Space Race, the early days of aviation, the era of exploration, and so forth. The question, I think, is whether such an approach belongs in a school.

A major drawback to a moonshot is the near-inevitability of failure. The likelihood of success is low enough when an adult devotes his/her life to a moonshot — for students, that likelihood is near-impossibility. But failure itself is not the problem. Failure is normal, and it can be the root of a very effective learning experience if it is not stigmatized.

Every year, I ask my graduating physics class to Make Something after their IB exams, but before graduation. There’s usually an awkward week in-between, when the students sit at home bored — it’s not yet summer holidays, but neither do they have school. In the past, these projects included making a large-scale catapult and model rockets. I like the idea of using physics ideas (I can usually find a relevant equation or two) to help build something, with the bonus that the students get to use some tools.

This year, the class decided to build a human-powered aircraft — or, at least, a glider. They built large wings using aluminium tubes with a linen skin, and attached these to the side of a bicycle. The thin airfoil approximation allows for a calculation (well, a rough estimation) of the lift coefficient. Unfortunately, it seemed that the framework was too pliable and unstable to provide much lift to the bicycle, but the students enjoyed trying to pilot the thing.

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