A portrait of Neil

Neil was a Grade 6 boy who chose to investigate “Satellites”. Table 4.7 contains the transcripts of Neil’s three videos.


Table 4.7

Neil’s video transcripts for “Satellites”

Prior knowledge video

My topic is satellites and I really don't know much about them except they're used for transmitting signals to devices around us, say, for cable TV, or, umm, GPSs and, so, yeah.

That's all I know about them.


Completed explanatory animation

Satellites are objects which orbit around a planet.  Most satellites orbiting the Earth are placed there by humans for communication.

This is fat Jeffery.  He is a couch potato but recently he hasn’t been able to get a signal on his TV so he can’t be a couch potato any more!  Let’s see what is takes for Fat Jeffery to get his TV signal.

Satellites can only send transmissions in straight lines but the Earth is round. 

A satellite dish on the Earth transmits a signal to a satellite.  This is the uplink. One satellite sends a signal to another satellite to cross the Earth’s surface.

Inside a satellite is a transponder, which changes the frequency and amplifies the signal before sending it on.

When the signal is close enough to the destination it can be received by another satellite dish on the ground.  This is the downlink.

Director's commentary

At the start I got a big, like, head start with my animation but then from then on it started to slow down, as I had to do more research (and) just add small things that were harder to change.

I put Fat Jeffery in…yeah just came up with, just a random name and…Fat Jeffery yeah.  But I just wanted to add something like this to make it a bit more humorous.

Yeah I liked the way that I presented it and put it into a way that you could show like, the two words joining into one.  ‘Cause that’s what they [i.e., transponders] actually do [relaying] from transmitter and responder into...yeah the transponder.

Overall we were just trying to fix all the small things and just get everything right.


Introducing Neil and his topic

Neil began his animation cautiously and often checked with me to see that he was doing the right thing:

Neil seemed to be very concerned that he complied with my guidelines as he often asked; "Can I do this?" I have since reassured Neil that he is free to follow his own path as it is his learning and decision-making processes in which I am most interested (Researcher reflection, 21st July 2011).

This cautionary approach changed dramatically after the first session once Neil understood that he didn’t need my approval. The "head start" that Neil referred to in his director’s commentary was that he immediately grasped the concept of the iterative PowerPoint animation technique for "Insert duplicate slide". I had a constant struggle with Neil from this point forward to get him to complete a key frame before proceeding to create the movement sequences. Otherwise, Neil would end up double-handling all of his imagery as each correction or improvement would have to be implemented multiple times. This was an issue that ran right through until the final session and so this issue will be revisited during Neil’s summary.

Satellites seemed to be a great topic for an animation as the visual and spatial possibilities of showing the Earth as a globe appeared to be obvious. Neil commenced the project knowing that satellites are “used for transmitting signals to devices around us, say, for cable TV, or, umm, GPSs” (“Satellites” prior knowledge video). The next logical step for Neil was to move beyond what satellites do so that he could investigate how satellites work.


Creating the ZPD with Neil

As with many of the children in the study, asking the right questions was an important part of guiding their progress. The question that moved Neil into the ZPD was, “How many satellites are needed to transmit a signal around the world?” (Lesson plans, 8th September 2011). My reason for posing this question to Neil was that I wanted him to understand that satellite signals travel in straight lines. The octagon shape in Figure 4.8 is a metaphor for the Earth.

Figure 4.8

Figure 4.8. Screen shot of octagon metaphor.

Figure 4.8 implies that eight satellites are required for a global transmission due to the eight sides of the octagon shape. The noted science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke answered his own hypothetical question about this issue in 1945 [several years before satellites were even invented] stating that “three satellite stations would ensure complete coverage of the globe” (p. 306). Neil’s use of the octagon metaphor was to illustrate the statement that “satellites can only send transmissions in straight lines but the Earth is round” (“Satellites” animation). An octagon looks more like a globe than a triangle, which places this metaphor on the realistic side of Pratt and Garton’s (1993) scale of arbitrariness continuum, as the geometric issue closely resembled the phenomenon being represented. It was logical to proceed from the octagon metaphor to the planetary, Earth imagery as shown in Figure 4.9.

Figure 4.9

Figure 4.9. Screen shot of a satellite signal.

Animating the satellite transmission lines smoothly proved to be impractical in PowerPoint because it wasn't possible to make small, incremental changes between each frame. Any disruption to the position of the lines was unacceptable so we got around this by drawing a completed transmission signal (i.e., red line) and then erasing small parts of the line in Adobe Photoshop. Each change was then “Saved as” a new file and then these files were played in reverse order to show the transmission signal moving and expanding. Although Figure 4.9 was an actual screen shot, it also provided the source material for all of the preceding animation frames using this reverse-engineering approach.


Neil’s conceptual journey

Neil began a tangent about satellite protocols during Session 8:

So today I did a bit of research and I found out that a satellite, say one company's satellite, can't send a transmission to a different company's satellite 'cause they need to have, umm, the same program (or something like that) to get it to where it needs to go. I'm going to make a, some more slides that, I'm going to put in a new coloured satellite. And I'm going to have one of my satellites send a signal to it and then it comes up with a red cross on the new satellite and it sends it back (Student reflection, 22nd September 2011).

I encouraged Neil to abandon this issue because I considered this to be additional information that would make his animation too long. I likened the compatibility issue to different cell phones using different networks and how the differences “probably relate to settings, configurations and company or country protocols rather than true functionality” (Researcher reflection, 22nd September 2011). Neil agreed to abandon the compatibility issue but this discussion proved to be useful to help determine what is essential information for this topic.

Having described and depicted the satellite transmission signal path, the final issue to be covered related to what actually happens when a signal is received and then transmitted to another satellite. Neil addressed this explicitly in his voice-over script, “Inside a satellite is a transponder which changes the frequency and amplifies the signal before sending it on” (“Satellites” animation).

When we learnt that "transponder" was a portmanteau (i.e., a merging of two words), the visual potential for morphing transmitter and responder together was obvious. Figure 4.10 shows the two words as they start to merge.

Figure 4.10

Figure 4.10. Screen shot of the transponder portmanteau.

This simple device was very helpful because it would have been extremely difficult to actually show how the signal’s frequency is changed inside the transponder. The actual sequence was:


The need to be able to visualise the [invisible] satellite signals provided additional opportunities for us to discuss the properties of these transmissions. Neil’s early attempts at representing a satellite signal involved moving brackets [ ))))) ] which resembled a ripple on a pond. I suggested that he use a lengthening line [ ____ ] to show that the signals are constant rather than intermittent. Neil was agreeable but somewhat annoyed that he would need to recreate some of his imagery.

Neil clearly enjoyed the animation process. I often wondered if he was more interested in creating movement than learning about his topic. The following story illustrates Neil’s enthusiasm when he inadvertently stayed back after school beyond 3:30 pm when a Storyboard session concluded:

I had my usual orchestra rehearsal and as the other children were coming in, Neil said he was "just finishing up". I had my back to him and became distracted with the twenty- five musicians who had now arrived and were tuning up. Fifteen minutes later, I noticed that Neil was still there working away and that he had created thirty-two slides (Researcher reflection, 11th August 2011).

I asked Neil to elaborate on his learning during the debriefing session:

Brendan: How do you think you learnt compared to if you did something that wasn’t on a computer. Like if you were making posters or writing a normal sort of assignment? Do you think you would have learnt as much or do you think it was...do you think this was a, a better or worse way to go about it?

Neil: I think like a visual presentation like on a computer, you can just explain it more and it’s more entertaining and more like...you, you have a lot more ways to go about it where...whether...if you do it on like a poster or a piece of paper, I think your choices would be much, much more limited in how you’d want to do it or set it out (Debriefing session 2, 22nd December 2011).

Neil’s enthusiasm often turned into frustration as he rarely heeded my advice to get his imagery correct before creating movement through the “Insert duplicate slide” process. At one stage, Neil thought that he had finished but there were issues with his imagery that we still had to resolve. “Today I actually found out that I haven’t finished, according to Brendan, which I’m not happy with” (Student reflection, 1st December 2011). The particular issue related to the background colour of outer space. Neil was using white rather than black and he had also applied a shadow. Figure 4.11 is a discarded screen shot from a complete series of 89 frames.

Figure 4.11

Figure 4.11. Discarded “Satellites” imagery 10th November 2011.

Neil was annoyed about having to redo this, but, once completed, he could see that his animation was more realistic using black for outer space. During the last session, there was still work to be done so Neil delegated these finishing touches to me: “I’ve instructed Brendan and told him what I need to be done and he’s going to be helping me finish it which is really good” (Student reflection, 8th December). I asked Neil how he felt about the issue of co-authorship during the group’s debriefing session:

Brendan: How did you feel about me working on your work? Do you think it took away from it being yours as much or were you just happy that you had help?

Neil: Well, I think I really appreciate that Brendan could help me and I just, it just felt like it took away a bit of the pressure and I don’t feel that...as if it...my project was being taken away by me. I still think, Brendan helped out a lot but I still did a lot, umm, with it. And he just helped me and just guided me as well and yeah and I really appreciate that (Debriefing session 2, 22nd December 2011).

Neil developed a deep understanding of everything he presented in his animation. The “Basic understanding” assessment in his conceptual consolidation rubric is because we left out some issues to make the topic more manageable. Such issues included the geosynchronous orbit that keeps each satellite in position. Table 4.8 is Neil’s final conceptual consolidation rubric.


Table 4.8

Neil’s final conceptual consolidation rubric

Uses correct terminology With assistance Simplified terminology Some correct terminology Actual terminology

Identifies relevant variables

Not apparent With assistance Basic understanding

Deep understanding

Identifies relationships between variables Not apparent With assistance Basic understanding Deep understanding

Self-assessment scale (1-10). Does the student think that they understand their topic?


If Neil was to start another animation now he would be much more efficient as he understands the importance of building appropriate imagery before attempting to animate it. A summary of Neil’s conceptual journey is presented in Table 4.9.


Table 4.9

Summary of Neil’s conceptual journey

Summary of Neil's conceptual journey


Proceed to the next Portrait of Magnus


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