~a month in the life of a lifelong learner~ the morphometrics of distance learning

~3-23 to 4-23~

Quull School

At the end of March we started what we called Quull School, a self-directed version of the supplemental learning of the school district. I did show Quinn the lists of projects and learning tools from the school, but after a glance at it, he decided his focus would be on his own pursuits, and I supported him on that. By design, the school’s supplemental learning could not delve into new territory beyond what the students have already learned, as not all students had gained access by just a couple of weeks into the stay-at-home order. The IT personnel of the school had been delivering chrome books and the bus drivers had been delivering supplemental learning packets along with lunches, but it would be a few more weeks until Distance Learning For All could be implemented, new material could be provided, or grades could be back in play. I support the equity of this, and at the same time, I would not require Quinn to review topics he already knows, as that is a particularly painful form of torture to kids with his neural wiring.

We launched Quull School with a game of scattergories. I had him come up with the categories based on areas of learning he would like to dive into more, so we ended up with categories of Music, Programming, Math, Periodic Table, Dinosaurs, Marsupials, and Mythology and played several rounds. For the letter E, I recalled Eoraptor from Quinn’s days of pre-reading when I would draw dinosaurs starting with each letter of the alphabet for him to color, along with the letter. When I told him about that phase of his learning career, he did not remember, so I showed him the sketchbook from that era. We discussed what would work for planning and reflecting on the learning he would be doing, and he decided on a few organizational tools and accountability measures. We planned an extra hangout later in the afternoon each day of Quull School to touch base on how his school day went. I walked him through using google calendar for initiating the meeting, which he called “school with mama.” No time like the present to acquire these extremely relevant skills; like so many life skills, he and I are learning concurrently.

I saw an example of a basic planner where each day of the week had two boxes: 1. the plan and 2. what I did. I showed it to him as a potential idea for how to track his learning goals and progress. From here, he developed his own Quull school log/table in a google doc; it started the same way with the plan/what I did (reflection) and for that first day, his entries were “make a plan” and “made a plan.” His resulting schedule slides ultimately ended up several steps more detailed than the original example. An extra slide contained his list of ideas in case of days when he wasn’t sure what he felt like learning: Math, Electronics, Music, Computer Programming, Italian, Chemistry.

As for the content of the schedule, it started filling in rapidly. Quinn’s paleontology camp director set up Paleontology lectures on zoom for every Tuesday and Thursday; Q agreed to write a paragraph summary of each one, to keep his writing skills sharp. He also spent a fair amount of time learning more computer programming on khan academy. He had been chipping away at the html section, having finished animation in javascript, but now he has moved deeper into advanced javascript because “I want to really start making games.” I helped him set up to use zoom for his paleontology lectures. I can’t help but notice that Quull school is allowing us the opportunity to actively tackle some big executive functioning skills that don’t easily fit into the normal schedule of school and life.

screensharing: check.

Geometric morphometrics

After his first zoom lecture he told me about geometric morphometrics, which he explained very eloquently and I recorded on my audio recorder. I know he found that area of study quite intriguing – math plus fossils. Quinn was munching on cherries on the hangout, or I bet he would have said a lot more!

“If you take two faces, like yours and mine, and you compare segments of them, like say between nose and earlobes and chin, for example, uh, then the overall shape formed by that is going to be different for you than for me,” said Quinn.

I said, “Ok and so you could go by the length of the segments or you could go by the area or the volume or other geometry… So then if you find a new fossil of us, of our group of beings, then you measure it and you can kind of place it in sort of the timeline of age? And or gender, or whatever it is that you’re able to find out? Uh, that is awesome. That sounds really Quinn-like, like a Quinn thing.”

“What’s just morphometrics?” he asked.

“I guess it would just be comparing without the geometry of it, just comparing features… hmm, so morphology is like the shape of things, like when I do parasitology there are different worms that I identify. I can identify them by genetics but a lot of times I do it by morphology which means I’m looking for certain features like the shape of the mouth or suckers or spines or things that a parasite can have. But just descriptively instead of measured. So presence or absence of a spine is not geometric morphometrics – morphology is what I’ve always called that. -metrics by definition is measuring, so morphometrics is maybe measuring the lengths of the features but not necessarily calculating the geometry in terms of angles and area and volume… of the snout or whatever. That’s a really cool topic. I could see you getting into that.”

Quinn’s paleontology lecture summaries contain some real gems of wisdom:


Geometric morphology is where you take a series of points on a subject and only look at them, and do the same for a different subject, then compare the shape or the distance between certain points and see how, say, some animal’s shoulders get broader as it ages or that in that species, the females have smaller feet than the males, or something like that. Also, as a side note, make sure to take at least one or two classes on public speaking and presenting and other things like that. The last thing that I learned is that sometimes, political arguments between countries can block off certain areas to fossil hunting.


Elytra are the wings on the inside of a beetle’s husk, folding into the shell when they stop flying and land. Also, here are some tips for doing destructive analysis if you have low sample size: do some other destructive analysis on a different fossil type that has higher sample size and keep doing it as practice until you are sure that you will not only do the destructive analysis correctly and not mess it up and that you will gain valuable knowledge from the research.


Hippidion was an ice age horse that scientists are pretty sure had a trunk because of how long the nasal passages are on the skull. Also, some hooved animals that are ice age and older had three toes and some even had five toes extending off of their hooves. These are believed by some to be proto-hooves that later evolved into the one and two “digit” hooves of modern animals. Another thing is that sometimes there can be things that conflict with everything that you have studied and learned thus far, and if this happens just know that there are a lot of things we haven’t learned yet even on well studied subjects. Also, side note: never discount data just because you don’t like it or because it conflicts with what you found in your studies.


There are many different types of cells in the brain and they all have very different functions. Four specific types are trained to let loose certain hormones in the brain like fear.


Networking can help get you into the job you want. Also, just a note think outside the box if/when you are getting fossils out. Some weird things can be useful.


Antivenom comes from mixing the venom of different snakes and injecting enough to be noticeable by the immune system of, but not deadly to, sheep. Then you collect the antibodies made by the sheep, and mix them together. Side note: if there is no job that matches the thing you want to do, make the job up, because then not only will you get to do what you want, but it makes space for more of those below you in the ranking of the business as well.


If you are trying to get a job as a federal worker, make sure you did everything right (i.e. your resume is PERFECT), otherwise you won’t usually get the job. And if something says “PHD preferred” treat it as “PHD required”, because it probably basically is. Another thing, make sure to never turn down any math classes for science careers, because it might be useful.


Science is not a good subject to frontload on, because it will be painful to go through as you go through the classes you picked for science. Also, try visiting different universities to narrow down which one you want to go to, but don’t go out of your way and spend $200 to go visit one thing.

In-person paleontology camp has been canceled for 2020, but online camps are being invented. I am so thankful Quinn is already hooked into such a cool paleontology community and grateful for the opportunity he has had to immerse a little more in learning on a favorite subject.

Distance learning for all

Quinn had a bit of an emotional response to the idea of school starting up online. He said, “there is a pandemic going on and if they think I am just going to do school, they’re wrong.” Distance learning for all started April 15th, and part of the resistance was, I knew, not knowing what it would really entail. The arrangements were: two half hour sessions with their homeroom teacher per week, with teachers available by appointment for other time slots for additional help. Assignments and quizzes were administered through google classroom… periods 1 and 2 released the week’s assigned work on Mondays (Language arts social studies), 3 and 4 on Tuesday (PE and band) and 5-6-7 on Wednesday (algebra, video production, science) and so he had a week to turn in the work for each class. He ultimately ended up being much more flexible, and it was a nice enough format so he could plan his time how it works for him, not be expected to be in a seat from 8:05 to 3:05 each day and tune into certain classes at specific times (he could still attend his paleontology zooms, and so on). The chance to virtually see some of his peeps for homeroom was nice (but with no pressure to – live classes could not be graded since they can’t ensure all kids can attend.) For his elective, there was a list of projects to choose from, and he chose some of the robotics-related ones first.

On days when he had trouble bringing himself to do school work (and these were not rare) I reminded Quinn to prioritize self care. That YES, we are in the middle of a pandemic and sometimes we won’t feel resilient enough to do our work. I told him I feel like that, too. We have to get our work done in good moments between now and when the work is due, but it is okay to have down time when you just don’t do any work. I think he works through these intense emotions more quickly for the lack of push back from me. I try to reflect his feelings, rather than fighting them, and I think he feels validated and can let them go.

Electronics, pi, volume of sphere, wau, frequency and pitch, volume of an icosahedron, waves and particles, extra dimensions

The sweet spot of this month was, however, that space prior to the implementation of Distance Learning. Always self-directed lifelong learners at heart….

Quinn sent me a photo of his organized resistors for making a foot pedal for his dad’s guitar. “Electronics day 1” was his caption. This is something he’s interested in, without being interested in playing guitar, just for the electronics learning. So quull.

I showed him what I have been working on- measuring the diameters of arctic cod eggs, and how I measure them in ImageJ software, based on setting a scale in the program to a known number of pixels per millimeter taken by the microscope camera; then we went over how I go from diameter to volume of an egg (sphere) and he was all over that four-thirds-pi-r-cubed math. Then we reviewed where pi came from, and how round things have pi inherent in them, and you can measure the circumference and diameter of a bunch of objects and average that ratio and you will approach 3.14159… Then I taught him a few tricks with calculations in google sheets for this, after he measured a few circles. Tricks I learned in a basement computer lab as a college freshman; how to click and drag to fill a formula down a column. We also discussed how the average will approach pi more quickly/closely for larger objects because the measurement errors would be more diluted.

We watched Vi Hart’s the science and math of frequency and pitch together at his request. She zooms in on the sine waves of each overtone of her own voice in Audacity software (which Quinn has been using to record music with his dad) to help understand how we experience sound, including nuances like why a middle C is always the same note but sounds different coming from different instruments or voices; along with a playground swinging metaphor and her excellent logical thought progression, I think we both learned a lot.

Audible made it free to listen to Harry Potter book 1, so I emailed that link to Quinn, and then realized he can also listen to it in Italian! We’ll see if he takes me up on it.  “Harry Potter, il ragazzo che ha vissuto.”

On our hangouts, we verbally reviewed wau; I used the end of my bokchoy to do an ink print on a piece of paper and then measured the angles and we were happy to see the phi angles of Fibonacci. We worked on math doodles like netted spirals, impossible triangles, fractals, Pascal’s triangles, and tesselated fish.

We played Uno and made hexaflexagons together. Then he wanted to do a project where we each made a set of D&D dice out of paper, so we did. I had Quinn look up the formula for volume of an icosahedron, aka a 20-sided dice. Quinn also worked on creating his own version of the card game mentioned in Percy Jackson called Mythomagic.

I sent Q photos of hummingbird babies enjoying multiple dinners. I miss feeding him multiple dinners. Also this month, we hiked on the beach together for my birthday and saw squid eggs and a green worm.

Reading this month: Quinn read The Parrot’s Lament and shared with me something he learned about dolphins collaborating with humans in fishing endeavors. I began reading to him Zero: the biography of a dangerous idea by Charles Seife. Sometimes a word or phrase would get him to interrupt and reveal some secret knowledge – he knew all about triangular numbers, for instance. We learned new words like flinders. He seems not only undaunted, but energized, by the necessity of additional dimensions to scaffold string theory in order to bridge the seemingly infinite chasm between quantum physics and relativity.

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