An Atomic Adventure in Albuquerque – Manhattan Project Field Study

The GIF above is me scrolling through my Circle B.C. Trip notes document. It totals over 4,400 words. At the time, this number didn’t seem crazy to me; I had planned from the start to record anything and everything. I had this preconceived notion that this trip, being in my own province, would not be of much interest to me, and that I should put all of my effort into the work aspect. However, this trip ended up being incredible, and now I only wish that I would have strayed from my plan and experienced it more, and been open to new learning. I don’t blame myself though, as I only realized that flexibility is okay quite recently, and it took a trip halfway across the continent to do it…

On October 2nd, PLP 11 arrived at the Vancouver Airport to being their journey to Albuquerque, New Mexico. This trip was pretty short; 6 days in total, but it ended up being one of the most rewarding field studies I have been on. However, this isn’t just because of our itinerary; it’s because it brought me a shift in mindset. It showed me that field studies are not extended work blocks for me to confirm pre-made ideas, but adventures where flexibility and inquiry are rewarded. They are times to break free of the stress of classroom life, and enjoy myself while diving deep into learning. In this post, I will outline how these six days opened a new chapter in my real-world learning journey.

Field schools aren’t planned at random; they are designed to center around specific units throughout the year. As you might have been able to guess by our location, what inspired this field school is a unit surrounding the Manhattan Project. Feel free to explore the link if you are interested in learning more, but in a nutshell, the Manhattan Project was America’s successful effort to create the world’s first atomic bomb centred in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Throughout this unit, we focused on the science, the political climate at the time, but most importantly, what effect this development had on the world. This was all guided by our driving question:

This question is a broad as it is thought provoking, and can’t be answered through a simple video or essay. This was clearly understood, as our project for the unit was to develop and publish a multimedia book using the app Book Creator. The final draft is still underway, but my first draft can be seen below:

My First Draft 

This draft we were assigned before our trip in order to organize our thoughts and focus our inquiry. For this, I was given the feedback to leave room for more info and media, and space out the elements I was keeping in. Through this, I developed my first completed book shortly after our return to Vancouver:

My Second Draft 

The first exciting location on our trip was…Seattle (again)! We has stopped at the SeaTac airport for a few hour layover before boarding our second flight to Albuquerque, and had a nice dinner of fish and chips. However, I was in no mood to take in the scenery. About a week before then, I had made a goal in my mind to have my book virtually completed by the end of this day, with the rest of the trip serving the purpose of filling in media I couldn’t get online. I was not going to let myself get behind, or distracted, or… My plan quickly fell short as my assigned group made a plan to go shopping. I immediately started to panic, as I felt my entire schedule crumbling before my eyes. I took a moment to breathe though, and then realized I would have a three hour flight coming up and hours of car rides in the upcoming days. With this in mind, I took a risk and decided to join them, and ended up having a really good time. This was my first glimpse into the value of flexibility, but I still had a long way to go…

An exhausting travel day led to deep sleeps, and the next day we were ready to take on New Mexico. We started driving around 6:00 a.m. through the dimly lit highways of Albuquerque. Keeping my mission of total book completion in mind, I glued my eyes to my screen for about a half hour. However, something caught my eye around 7:00; sunrise. It was so brilliant, so clear, and I couldn’t help but admire it in awe. I realized that this wasn’t something I was going to see again, and took a chance of having less work time in favour of asking Mr. Hughes to make a photo pitstop. I’m quite glad I did this, as I ended up getting this picture:

Funny enough, this random event led to something great being created outside of PLP. I was so happy with this picture, when I got back from the trip I asked if I could make the PLP page in the yearbook this year, and have begun work on it recently. It also inspired me to keep pursuing great photo opportunities of students during the trip:

As the sun lit the sky a brilliant blue, Mr. Hughes pulled up to the iconic gate of the Los Alamos Historic Site. Despite it’s significance, I decided before arriving against taking notes because I didn’t see the opportunity for me learning anything new. Once we began our tour however, I realized this plan was flawed. Yes, we reviewed what we had learned in class (e.g. who built it, how it worked, etc.) but we also got a striking amount of new information, looking deep into the personal lives of the scientists. Now seeing that there may be value in reopening my inquiry here after all, I thought flexibly and strayed from my plan. I took notes on key points, pictures, and completed a spontaneous interview to further my understanding of the bomb’s impact on it’s employees. This led to a new page in my book which I am quite proud of:

For those of you in my class, you might recognize the map in this picture from The Secret City of the Manhattan Project game (a virtual experience we played in class). It was the clearest map I could find of the historic site, and now as I was making a page on the place, I saw it fitting to use it. However, there was a problem. The only way to get a picture of the maps was through a screenshot, which originally looked like this:

Despite this obstacle, I was determined to use this picture, and decided to once again think flexibly to solve the issues. I first opened it in Super Impose to instant alpha the background. Then, I imported it into the app Ibis Paint, which is typically used for drawing. In here I was able to manipulate the grid of the picture, turning it straight:

Next, I put it into Sketches Pro and used the colour grabber to cover up the writing and do some touch ups:

And finally, I imported it into Keynote to add in the numbers, creating the finished product seen above. This new method of photoshop is definitely something I will employ for future projects; who knew that a little flexible thinking could lead to innovation like this? Throughout the rest of the day, I was still pretty set on my book work plan, but this triumph showed me that it could be beneficial to stray from it a bit.

The third day was where we began getting into the meat of our topics, as we took a trip of the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. From the instant we walked through the doors, we were bombarded with material of all sorts. There were models of the bombs, pictures from the wars, speeches from officials; I was tempted to record all of it. Now I bet you’re thinking that I thought flexibly here to prevented a problem, but this time I actually did the opposite. During my tPol last year, I mentioned how I would only do what would be needed to get a required result when a project became too overwhelming, and this became the perfect time to implement that. I took the risk of only taking the pictures that I knew I needed or that would directly benefit my project. Although this risk did lead to less footage, it made the editing afterwards so much easier, and forced me to be more creative with the media I got. It also showed me that balancing flexible thinking and plan following is how you will produce the best results.

After a morning of science and intense work, it was time to relax a little by taking a trip into the world of New Mexico Art. We were heading to a location known as Meow Wolf, a collective art project developed by several New Mexican artists, which takes the form of a colourful and mysterious world:

It allows guests to put together the bizarre pieces of their surroundings in hopes of discovering the hidden narrative. If you know me at all, you can tell that this experience would be something right up my alley, and I was more than excited to dive in. However, there was a problem, and that was that my mind still raced with thoughts of my project.

I’m always thinking of my work as it helps me find efficient ways to tackle it, but I knew that if I wanted to enjoy myself here, I would need to set this planning aside for a little while. I decided to do this, giving myself makeup buffer time on the ride back, and am quite proud of this decision as I thought flexibly but also responsibly. The big theme of my tPol last year was me taking responsibility for my life and my work, and here I did this by not thinking flexibly on the drop of a dime as I did early on the trip, but rather willingly changing my plan before we arrived in a carefully considered manner.

Despite the early rising, no one dawdled on the morning of our forth day, as we knew where we were heading. The air rung with excitement as the sun rose over the low mountains, and as we drove farther and farther from civilization. We were heading to the Trinity Site; the location where the first atomic bomb was tested:

Upon arrival, the energy and anticipation was high, but this soon died down a little after pulling up to a line roughly a mile long. We got out, stretched our legs, and waited for the gates to open. Knowing that interviews were surely going occur at the site, I had originally planned to save my recording energy here and work on my book. This changed however, when Mr. Hughes pointed out how great this location would be for a standup of ourselves. Ever since I started PLP in grade 8, I have been working on actually taking the advice of others, and I saw an opportunity to do this here (even though I didn’t see the use of a standup in my book). I got my friends to film me, and ended up with a great piece of media that connects the information in my book to it’s human aspect for my readers. Once again, flexibility lead to the seizing of a great opportunity.

After what seemed like hours of wandering the desert, finding cow skeletons and crystals, the gates were finally opened. We then got out, regrouped, and set off down a long road towards a fenced off area. In it’s center, stood an obelisk:

I took a moment to admire it’s beauty, and then got to work. My main goal for this day was to find at least two interview sources who could give me some confirmation on the ideas I had around the bomb. At first, I was looking for facts connecting directly to my project, and this is what drew me to a Q and A booth located near the fence’s entrance. I had no problem introducing myself and my project to the workers, and quickly started firing off questions. Amazingly, they were able to answer every one I asked in great detail, which shocked me at first. After hearing what they had to say however, it started to make sense. These people had either worked on the project or have significant ties to it. Upon realizing this, my mind instantly raced to the question “what is your opinion on the good and evil of the bomb?”, but I was nervous about asking it as I didn’t want to create an uncomfortable situation, and wasn’t sure if it would be necessary for my project at all. I thought about it for a bit, and determined that I would take the risk to ask it and potentially stir up controversy, because if I did want to use this info afterwards but didn’t have it, there would be no coming back. Taking this risk was a good choice, as two of the best interviews from the trip came from this:

At this moment, something just kind of clicked in my head. It suddenly dawned on me just how real the bomb’s impact is. It hasn’t just affected Governments, nations at war, scientists in far off laboratories; it has affected everyday people like them and myself, and still does to this day. I suddenly looked up and realized where I was and what I have been experiencing this entire trip. I was glad that I did take this risk, did keep my inquiry open, because it wouldn’t have become real for me otherwise.

Walking away from the site left me with a feeling of achievement and having opened my eyes. I could now, wherever I looked, see the bomb’s great impact, and I wanted to learn about all of it. It seemed like this was also the case for my classmates who had conducted similar interviews, but unfortunately we only had so much time here. However, between the thirteen of us, we had asked enough questions over the trip to learn all there was to know about the bomb, but we had no way of communicating this information to each other. I realized that here was an opportunity to think outside the box and develop an innovative solution. After some consideration, I came up with the idea for a PLP commons library, where all of the media from the trip could be stored. Then, I practiced synergy by taking in Alivia’s idea of giving credit to the users who posted them, and pitched it to Mr. Hughes. It may have been an idea different than anything done before in PLP, but for future trips it may come in remarkably handy.

Our drive back to Albuquerque took us back through the dark roads of New Mexico, and I put in some more time to work my book. At this point, I had changed my plan from finishing the book as soon as possible to working on it when I could, trying to have it done by the end of the trip or even afterwards. This definitely was a risk to take, but it was a responsible one as I knew I had the time and freedom to enforce this flexibility. I then took a moment to peer up at the beautiful sky.

As flexibility would have it, one of the most unique events of our trip was moved a whole day later, but in my opinion this was for the best. I think this because it was only on the last day that I had truly accepted the mindset of flexibility, and this event truly was not one to miss. For a great, final hurrah, we drove down to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. The sites were incredible, the food was delicious, and spending it all with my classmates was a dream come true. I’m so glad that I was willing to go with the flow and experience it in all its glory:

Taking the responsible risk to not work and enjoy yourself is wonderful if you can hold up the responsible side of it, and that was just what I did. On the plane ride home, I worked on my book as I knew that now would be a time when I wouldn’t miss out on much. I still employed flexibility, sleeping for an hour when I needed it, and found myself enjoying my work as my heightened understanding of the material from the trip made it all the more real.

For the next few days, I worked to complete the book, and was able to do so with relative ease. Despite not following my media capture plan note by note, I found that it didn’t matter as a little creativity could fill in the blanks. I found my work was streamlined, concise, and that my final product was just the right length. On top of this, it now included so many authentic and relevant details, interviews, audio clips, and pictures that I gathered from the trip, along with personal touches from my experiences. I had truly had an incredible time, and had made an incredible product, all while achieving my tPols goal of taking responsibility for my life and learning. I can’t wait for our next field study, where I can take responsible risks, think flexibly, and have an amazing time once again!

(Much shorter, isn’t it?)

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