SOUTH OGDEN — “I want to hold a moon rock. I’m holding a moon rock!” exclaimed a student in Craig Pitts’ second grade class at H. Guy Child Elementary School. “It looks like the cookies and cream chocolate that I eat.”
Pitts planned a series of cosmic activities for Monday through Friday to celebrate Space Week, an annual tradition for his classroom. Unlike students in prior years, though, this group of second graders on Wednesday had a unique opportunity — they handled and analyzed rocks collected from the moon’s surface by astronauts from the Apollo program.
“Do you guys remember that movie that you saw with the astronauts on the moon?” said Maggie Huddleston, the Weber School District’s science teacher leader, to a group of students that had just rotated to the moon rock station. She was referring to footage of the first moon landing in 1969.
“This rock right here,” she continued, “maybe this was the rock they were picking up in that video. This came from the moon. Astronauts got this, from the moon, and brought it to Earth. It’s real.”
Obtaining samples collected on the moon from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, has been a couple of years in the making for Pitts. It began when he saw an ad in a mailer from the Utah State Office of Education that said teachers could sign up for training to be certified to obtain and handle materials from the Johnson Space Center. So, he registered for the course.
Pitts initially ordered moon rocks for his class to observe last year, but schools were shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic just before they arrived. He had to reject the delivery and return the samples to the sender. “We’re excited to have them back this year,” he said.
In order to possess the moon rocks, teachers have to follow a number of security protocols. According to Pitts, he had to keep the activity under wraps until the day before students got to handle to rocks. Otherwise, he would have had to arrange for armed guards to accompany the loaned samples.
Huddleston said she believes Pitts is the only teacher in the district with such a certification, but moon rocks weren’t the only materials originating from outside Earth’s atmosphere the second grade teacher collected for students to examine.
One of the stations students spent time at Wednesday included meteorite samples donated to the Weber School District by Utah State University. Students compared a deceptively heavy 12-pound meteorite to a hunk of obsidian, which was considerably lighter. They also experimented with the magnetic properties of the meteorites, which are made of iron and lead.
“This one is more dense because it’s really heavy,” explained one student, lifting the meteorite above his head. Then, picking up the obsidian, he said, “This one is really light — carry it — so it’s less dense.”
At another station, students analyzed debris Pitts collected from the roof of South Ogden Junior High School to find micrometeorites, or stardust.
“What you’re going to do is you’re going to move your plate around and if you see a little piece of dirt that’s rolling around, those are the ones that you want to get,” Pitts instructed the students. “They’re rolling like little tiny balls.”
“I see one! I see one!” a second grader interjected.
When a student found stardust, they separated it from the rest of the debris and placed it on a clean paper plate, where they looked at it under a telescope and took pictures. Then, Pitts put the micrometeorite in a tiny jar for that student to take home.
Students at the other two stations, amounting to five total, used marbles and cocoa powder to replicate an asteroid hitting the surface of the moon and wrote poems about the cosmos — Pitts incorporated outer space into every subject this week. At each station, students used a packet to draw and write observations and questions.
“This is how science should be,” Huddleston said. “It’s opportunities to explore, to write, to report their observations.”
Although Pitts has taught science in this way for years, this type of instruction falls in line with the newest state science standards implemented beginning in late 2019, Huddleston noted. Teachers will begin being assessed on them this spring.
The Science with Engineering Education standards, or SEEd Standards, were adopted for K-5 students by the state school board in June 2019. While students continue to learn foundational scientific information, these standards emphasize the importance of putting science into practice and teaching it in a way that helps students learn to think like scientists as they make connections across different subjects.
“They have to have an opportunity to figure stuff out, and the only way we can figure stuff out is by touching it, playing with it, looking at it, observing it, changing it, whatever,” Huddleston said. “You can tell kids anything, but until they actually have something to do to figure it out — that’s how they build scientists.”
Pitts works to implement those principles throughout the school year as students learn about a variety of topics, and they love it. Many children were clad in space-themed outfits to recognize the occasion, with some wearing Star Wars T-shirts, and a second grader who colored, cut out and taped pictures of planets to himself. “This is the best week in the universe,” said one student.
Up next: Dinosaur Week.
“That’s always been my philosophy in teaching, is doing, learn by doing,” Pitts said. “We observe, we write everything we see, we write what we draw and we ask questions. ... That’s what sparks the interest, and that’s what gets them hooked into science.”