Leonardo's Apprentice

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From Reform to Transform


It was in Natalie Wexler’s Forbes (April 9, 2018) article, Three

Mistakes We Need to Fix If We Want Education Reform To Succeed,” that caught my attention in how corporate America still doesn’t get it.  Below, I have quoted each of her points as they were written.  

  1. The real problems begin at the high school level. In fact, the problems that manifest themselves in high school have their roots in elementary school, which reformers have long seen—mistakenly—as the bright spot in education. When students arrive in ninth grade reading several years below grade level, as is often the case in high-poverty schools, the answer is not simply to demand that they graduate within four years, come hell or high water. We need to give students more time to catch up if they need it—and we need to start looking critically at what is happening before high school that leaves students so unprepared.

It was Sir Ken Robinson (International education speaker and writer) who remarked, “The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed–it needs to be transformed.”  Where the Academy of Leonardo’s Apprentice has laid its course of action is at the secondary level because the elementary starts out fine but over time student engagement and motivation are drained by the time students reach high school. 

Why are students needing more time to catch up?  Reformers have already increased the classroom workload, extended school days making for shorter summer vacations, and have added more technology infrastructure including computers, notebooks, and iPad\tablets.  So, what is missing?   


A team discusses their potential solutions to global issues during the Global Problem Solving Competition held in STEPS on Friday, Nov. 7, 2014. Teams were given one hour to create a presentation.

Curiosity is the fuel for exploration, discovery, inquiry, and learning.  It was Walt Disney who pointed out, “Ideas come from curiosity.” Children are born with a natural curiosity about the world around them.  Curiosity naturally manifests itself with questions seeking understanding and answers. But instead of feeding the fire of curiosity, the system slowly creates an environment of silence leading to death for long term learning.  Students are guided away from exploration and inquiry and replaced with pre-assessments, tests, and post-assessments. The grade becomes more important than how the student learns. Standardization has become a machine-like system similar to Pink Floyd’s 1979 song, “Another Brick in the Wall.”

Interesting enough, elementary students already walk in with strong curiosity and motivation.  The question is how is our educational system slowly puts out the fire by the time that child reaches high school.  More content, testing, and technology is not the answer–that has already been proven. When more becomes less than expected the next step is to blame the teacher.


  1. The most important factor in educational achievement is a highly effective teacher. It’s true that teachers are hugely important, but reformers have judged teachers’ effectiveness by how much they boost students’ test scores and whether they’re seen to be employing the right kind of classroom “moves.” What reformers have paid little or no attention to is what teachers are being asked to teach. There’s increasing evidence that the best way to improve teachers’ performance is to provide them with high-quality instructional materials and specific training in how to use them.

According to the U.S. Department of Education statistics, 50% of new teachers will leave their profession within their first 5 years.  These are qualified educators who are hired as effective teachers. Why are they leaving? Who are the reformers who “judge” a teacher’s effectiveness?   The Forbes writer sites increasing evidence that to improve teacher performance, reformers need to provide high-quality instructional materials and teach them (the teachers) how to use it.  

Corporate America has changed the classroom environment to mimic their own.  Teachers are referred to as classroom managers. Superintendents are administrators, students are clients, content and curriculum have become business production, grades are paychecks.  Finally, government and state assessments are not based on what the curriculum demands but where they think the client should be by age and grade. The same standardization that made manufactures and businesses work has been applied to human learning–and it isn’t working!

When District and State assessments cut into the learning process to measure what they feel students should know, the so-called high-quality materials are no longer important.  Teachers earn a Master’s in their course of study, they must go through two years of training before they are accepted with certification. The majority of educational businesses are run by individuals who lack both classroom experience and education, and these are the people who are responsible for reforming teachers.  Holding an MBA or Ph.D. in a business field does not give a person the training to teach young children or teenagers. 


One reformer says, “Remove paper textbooks and give students digital tablets to read from–this will improve their reading skills.”  Of course, it won’t. Reformers are rarely educators. They are business people who sell and market their products or services promising to improve learning, increase student motivation, and a host of other snakebite medicine benefits.  Since 1996, over $80 billion dollars has been invested in internet infrastructure, computers, and digital equipment. These technologies are only tools. Teachers are given the technology and told to incorporate it into their curriculums.  Training is rare, and when given it is only introductory at best. Tech companies always state their products are hands-on intuitive. Technologies are generally designed and programmed for only one or two learning styles, subject matter, or limited content.  Most of the elementary tech tools are no more than electronic rote memory devices. Students wanting to explore beyond what is programmed is not available.

Ask the question  who are these “Reformers?”  From Horace Mann in the 19th Century to the business world today with their acronym of S.T.E.M.  education. Reformers have not in the past 50 years focused on student needs, that has been graded by organizations like P.I.S.A. (Programme International Student Assessment), which for the past 20 years has shown American 15-year old students are still average in science and math and below average in reading.  However, corporate America is not interested in what goes on in the classroom but their business ledgers, stock prices, and marketing agendas. It’s time to give the classrooms back to the educators to transform the status quo into a 21st Century educational journey.

  1. Education needs to be data-driven. What this means in practice is two-fold. First, teachers and schools are held accountable at least partly on the basis of students’ end-of-year scores on math and reading tests. In addition, teachers give students tests throughout the year that are supposed to predict performance on end-of-year tests, and they base their instruction on the results. At least when it comes to reading tests, this approach is actually counterproductive.

Here the article returns not to education but the corporate world.  Equating business mechanics with organic learning. Because this final suggestion is the biggest problem facing our educational system today–data-driven assessment.  The data-driven assessment has not only forced teachers to teach to the test, in order to keep their jobs but has also been one of the reasons many teachers are leaving their vocation.

Anyone who is a teacher knows that teaching a group of students cannot be accomplished by only one mode of learning.  Not all students learn the same way. This is why a student’s curiosity is important because it lends a helping hand to a professional educator on how a student processes information.  

eb8ce968798ca69afe630ef88675abccLeonardo da Vinci wrote, “To have a complete mind:  Study the science of art, and the Art of science. Learn how to see.  Realize everything connects to everything else. Leonardo also wrote, “Every action needs to be prompted by a motive.”  That motive is curiosity.  

We start by rekindling the fire of curiosity at the high school level.  This is the end product and where the problem blows-up. Address and fix this by building the support and mentoring elements that encourage student-directed learning and then we will be able to move down the ranks to elementary where curiosity walks in fresh and ready.  This is the goal of the Academy of Leonardo’s Apprentice. Leonardo’s Apprentice is an educational nonprofit foundation started by an educator to support student growth, learning, and leadership by encouraging creativity and innovation in solving problems that affect our global community.  

Back in the 1970s, the business world stepped in and said they could produce a better product (student).  50 years later, we are losing more teachers and students who are not performing enough or motivated enough to move on to the engineering and science fields this country needs.  The United States has become a country of consumers and app builders. The high power invention machine that was so powerful in the 19th and early 20th centuries has lapsed into a state accepting mediocrity. If you feel real changes need to be taken, help support the Academy of Leonardo’s Apprentice, check out our website, and help us as we help engage and motivate our youth in reigniting the fire of curiosity. 

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Different Point of View

vinci2What if you could sit down in an interview with Leonardo da Vinci and ask him what he considered his title should be.  I believe his answer would surprise you. He would not claim to be an inventor, engineer, scientist, cartographer, architect, military engineer, nor a mathematician.  He would say he was an artist. Those other titles were only a byproduct of his trade.

If you were to ask what drove him, he would simply say, “Curiosity.”   All you need to do is learn how to study what is around you. Leonardo wrote, “To have a complete mind, study the science of art, and the art of science.  Learn how to see. Realize that everything is connected to everything else.”

water-wheelWhen you stop to really study the sketches and drawings of Leonardo, you realize every line the master drew. Every line of shading, every curve, was drawn only once.  He did not use a pencil, it wasn’t to be invented for another 250 years. There were no erasers, CTRL Z to undo, no whiteout liquid to cover up an unwanted line. He used quill pens and inks that he had to make himself.  The inks were made with bits of iron, which would have given a darker brown or black ink. Over the years, the iron oxides reacted to air and they turned brown.

If you were to ask Leonardo what was his tool of choice when sketching he would reply, “Perspective Geometry,” which he learned and mastered.  Today, we have Smartphones that can take video and digital photos. We have access to computers and printers from jet inks to laser printers. But, we have no way to transfer the images that come from our imagination onto paper.  We can describe them in intimate details in words, but seeing the image spares us of trying to reconstruct words back into an image. This is where Leonardo’s tool of projected geometry (one and two-point perspective) comes in handy.

“But, I can’t draw” comes the retort. “I can’t even draw a crooked line,” some say with exaggeration.  Drawing is a skill, and skills can be learned. Adding the tool of perspective geometry along with a pencil or pen today is all you need to transfer your imagination onto paper.

Filippo-Brunelleschi-statue-Luigi-Pampaloni-Florence-Duomo-1830Now, to be fair, Leonardo did not invent perspective geometry.  That honor belongs to another Italian, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), a little over forty years before Leonardo was born.  Brunelleschi needed the geometry to complete his biggest project–completing the dome over the Florence Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.  The dome of the cathedral was left unfinished for 400 years because no one had figured a way how to complete the large dome. The dome width was 150 feet in width and was 180 feet above the ground.  Brunelleschi was able to make the construction plans using his new tool of perspective and then inventing new techniques and technologies to finish building the cathedral dome.




It was another contemporary artist of Brunelleschi, Leon Alberti, who took pen in hand to record in a book lessons on how to draw a three-dimensional object onto a two-dimensional sheet of paper.  Alberti’s book included two lessons: The first on how to construct a one-point perspective, and chapter 2 how to create a two-point perspective. By the time the young Leonardo entered as an apprentice to Andrea del Verrocchio’s art workshop, perspective drawing was all the rage. He quickly learned how to use this magical tool to transfer his imagination and three-dimensional objects into his notebooks.

hqdefaultWhen I make visits to the Disney Imagineers offices in Burbank, California, I find among all the technologies comprising of Smartboards, computers, 3D printers, and more, one common tool that starts every project–the pencil. The same truth can be found even at the JPL/NASA offices of engineering.  It is the cheapest, but the simplest tool to create from. Leonardo wrote, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” and he was right!

The second truth points out that if you really look and study the world around you–You will find patterns.  The catalyst that is needed at this point is curiosity. Because it is curiosity that makes the connections to everything else.  It is unfortunate that we live in a world today where people really don’t stop and look, smell, taste, and touch with curiosity. We live in a world where information and data are literally in the palm of our hands, and yet very few really know how to access it and use it.

At this point, I will make a slight detour into our present educational system.  A system designed through its curriculum and lesson plans to arrive at a set answer, concept, or procedure.  A system designed to structure learning and put a brake on creativity. Standardization leaves very little room for student-directed learning and for questions not within the plan structure.  Teaching math as an Art, exploring and discovering science, and learning about the different fields of engineering are pushed aside for scantron testing and assessments. The present system removes curiosity and replaces it with spoiler alerts.

The Academy of Leonardo’s Apprentice is daring to create a platform for secondary students not only to work in but to exchange different perspectives in solving problems.  To gain those perspectives students must first learn to get the best answer, not the only one, they must first learn how to ask the right question.  It is equally important that they learn the science of art and the art of science.  Finding the patterns and making the connections comes next.

Modern technology is great.  The perspective techniques that Leonardo learned and used 500 years ago have gone through an evolution from paper to projected geometry.  For example,  a technology that was invented using projected geometry called augmented reality (AR) has many uses. The rover you see below is not real, but a 3D projection focusing on my driveway from my iPhone and photographed.  Using my phone I can walk around the rover to see all its parts.  Many of its parts, like the camera, can move, and even the rover itself can move.  What other uses can augmented reality be used for? How will that add to virtual reality tools and even holographic projections? The future in transferring imagination into reality is coming closer, and to think, it all began with a simple question on how you might see things from a different perspective.

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Are Schools Preparing Today’s Youth for Tomorrow’s Problems?

DUST!  You know, that fine gray film that lines your bookshelves, or hugs the corners of your floors.  It’s one of those items on the cleaning list that needs to be done, but it is not that important unless you are entertaining or mom is coming over.  But there are a few items that we can’t just brush under the rug.  For example. . .

new-moon-dust-iii - CopyIf and when we decide to return to the Moon, the problem of dust will become a priority for survival.  Because there is no wind on the moon, the dust particle never erodes. Moondust is made up of micrometeorite impacts–and they remain razor-sharp. This makes moondust dangerous to breathe in.  Moondust closely resembles silica dust we have here on Earth. Silica dust can cause silicosis, a serious lung disease that can cause death.

dustsuit - Copy - CopyThe Apollo Astronauts could not completely dust themselves off before entering their capsule, and once back in their capsule the dust became a problem because it spread and attached itself to the electronic equipment and caused interruptions.  Astronauts also complained of eye and throat irritations. To date, no one has come up with a solution on how to remove the moon dust before entering the capsule or once in how to keep it from spreading around the living space.

 Because of the iron ore in meteorites, they are also susceptible to magnets.  China’s Yutu rover died in 2014 by overheating–Moondust was the prime suspect.  Lunar dust measures just 70 micrometers. That is about the size of a grain of earth sand, except earth sand is not razor sharp.  Moondust also carries an electrical charge–not great for electronic equipment. Dust and dust storms will be another issue once we reach Mars too!

arizona-haboob-chopper-photo-2 (1) - CopyHere on Earth, dust storms like the haboob that hits parts of Arizona or other parts of the world like North Africa are massive and can cause health problems.  Cars can choke with earth’s dust storms, air conditioning units and filtration units are on max during these types of storms. Is there a solution? Will solving the moon’s dust problem help here on Earth as well as when we travel to Mars?

My concern is that our present educational system is not preparing the next generation to answer these questions.  Even though I admire this entrepreneurial generation, they are locked into developing business solutions and commerce. The Z-Gen, as they are called, like transparency, they like to support causes and are the most advanced generation in using technology.  Even though business apps make money and sell products and services, App programs are not designed to move mankind forward to solving the problems that both affect the future of our planet and its inhabitants.


The Academy of Leonardo’s Apprentice was formed to answer a simple question.  Is anyone out there interested in science and engineering? It was the same question I asked back in 1994 when I launched a program online called, “Space Islands.”  To my surprise, by 1996, the program had reached 2.3 million students and teachers in forty nations. So, here it is twenty-five years later, and I am asking the same question.  Except, instead of presenting a program online we are creating and developing an online platform where secondary students in the global community will be able to interact and work on solving some of these questions.  This is a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to inspiring, motivating, and engaging those students looking for a workspace they can advance their ideas in. No other hidden agenda.

I want to see that entrepreneurial energy released on solving problems that will first address our planet and then how those same solutions might be altered or advanced in moving out of our planet.  We are putting together a unique team with a diversity of professional backgrounds who will work towards the development of programs that will be recorded and released for both students and teachers.   Joining our team, we will have members who have worked as Disney Imagineers as well as from JPL/NASA. This will allow students to interact with professionals who will provide encouragement and mentoring.

If you know secondary students who are looking for this type of platform to engage in have them register for our Leonardo’s Apprentice Contest Project.  This is a 501(c) nonprofit educational organization that is also looking for those individuals or organizations that will help us to grow and reach out through your financial support.  Your support will not only give valuable resources for students to work in, but will also provide the educational community with projects and lessons to draw from. All these programs will be focusing on student-directed project-based learning.  Here, it starts with the student asking the question.  

Our mission is to grow and sustain a global community whose members collectively will build interest and expertise in the fields of engineering, sciences, and the Arts in the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci.

Our Vision is to provide an online platform that will connect, engage, and motivate young minds within the global community in the fields of engineering and science, as we continue to search for tomorrow’s visionaries.