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School of Education uses Giant Moon Map to bring space to life

by Chuck Gordon

Wingate's future educators are finding that everyday occupations really grab middle-schoolers' attention when transplanted to heavenly bodies.

One day in the not-that-distant future, when earthlings finally colonize the moon, there will be jobs aplenty. Astronaut, of course, but also architect, hotel clerk, plumber and many others you might not think of when pondering space travel.

For a few days in late January, the task of getting students to understand the relationship between the moon and their lives, including potentially their careers, fell to Jessica Fuko, Dharma Falls and the Giant Moon Map.

Jessica Fuko teaches middle-schoolers about the moon

Fuko, a senior elementary-education major at Wingate, brought celestial bodies to life for sixth-graders at Cuthbertson Middle School one morning late last month.

“Does anybody know if there’s gravity on the moon?” Fuko asked a class seated in a circle on the 25-foot-by-25-foot map. Students gave a variety of answers, some right, some nearly there. “We have one-sixth the gravity we have on Earth,” Fuko told them. “So if we were to jump one foot on Earth, we would jump six feet on the moon – which I think would make basketball a lot more fun. Don’t you think?”

Using the Giant Moon Map, Fuko, her fellow education major Falls and Rebecca Cottenoir, a visiting instructor in education at Wingate, opened students’ eyes to the geography, geology, physics and potential of Earth’s natural satellite. The program is part of Wingate University’s STEAM3 (pronounced “steam cubed”) initiative, which is designed to promote a passion for science, technology, engineering, the arts and math among young people.

The map was donated to Cuthbertson Middle by the Aldrin Family Foundation (AFF), a nonprofit founded by astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s children to spark school kids’ interest in learning through the wonders of space. The AFF has also donated another map, the Giant Mars Map, to East Union Middle School.

“The goal for each student is to inspire curiosity,” says Andy Aldrin, president and CEO of the AFF. “It’s not just about STEM education. It’s about a passion for learning.”

The Giant Moon Map does a good job of sparking that passion. The map includes a timeline of notable moon-related events, badges for all six Apollo landings that prompt informational pages to pop up on iPads, and of course a large topographical map that makes it easy to dive into any number of lunar topics.

The AFF and its educational offshoot, ShareSpace, have charged Cottenoir with creating a curriculum that enables teachers to take their students out of the classroom and into space. Cottenoir has created six stations, such as one exploring engineering jobs that might be needed on the moon, one where students make their own crater in sand, and a timeline of man’s attempts to reach the moon. Students spend about 20 minutes at each station.

Cottenoir and students in Wingate’s Thayer School of Education have taken their moon-map roadshow to both East Union and Cuthbertson so far, giving all sixth-graders at the schools the opportunity to learn using the maps. Two Cuthbertson Middle science teachers, Meg Sammons and LaRae Biggerstaff, spent part of Presidents Day training teachers at other Union County Public Schools to use the maps.

Students operate mini-rovers by remote control

Active, engaged learning

The tactile and active nature of the stations Cottenoir has created makes for some memorable learning. In stocking feet, the students walk around the map, hopping from entry to entry on the timeline, dropping balls in sand to make craters, and exploring the thousands of visible craters on the moon.

“I think what’s lost in the classroom nowadays is that active engagement, the thing that actually gets the students working and wanting to learn,” Fuko says.

Students create "craters" in sand

“It’s fun!” Biggerstaff says. “It’s just different. And they’re moving, which is the basis of all learning, not being in a chair for 80 minutes.”

There’s no telling where that learning can lead. “You could describe it as both purposeful and accidental,” Sammons says. “We’ve got purposeful direction, with where we want them to go. But we’ve also got a lot of accidental learning and absorbing and extensions going on on the side that you don’t normally have if you’re just sitting in a classroom.”

At one station, students learn how to manipulate mini-rovers, provided by Boxlight. At another, they learn about the many types of engineers that will be needed once the moon is colonized.

That potential colonization is the key to ramping up children’s excitement about the moon. NASA has requested extra funding to make a return visit to the moon by 2024 and to create a sustained outpost by 2028.

“I was telling this group, ‘You know, when you go to college, it’s possible that you can get an internship that’s going to take you to the moon. That’s a very real possibility in your lifetime,’” Sammons says.

But they won’t all be astronauts. Cottenoir explains to the students that all kinds of workers will be needed on the moon: scientists, engineers, even fashion designers and travel agents.

She also discusses with them the differences between the Earth and the moon. There’s no atmosphere or oxygen on the moon, for instance. “Once we identify problems, we take it a step further,” Cottenoir says. “I want them to come up with creative solutions. Because when they’re young we haven’t really squelched their creativity yet. And those crazy, creative solutions are actually what we need, because we are going to the moon.”

Piquing students’ interest

With both science and education backgrounds, Cottenoir is a good choice for creating the curriculum to accompany the moon map. She has a master’s in biology and did all of the coursework for a Ph.D. in geology. In addition to teaching several years at various universities, such as Ole Miss, Arkansas State and Southern Illinois, she has also taught both ninth and 12th grades.

Cottenoir and Fuko challenge young students to think hard about the treacherous conditions on the moon and how humans can actually live there. At Cuthbertson, they explained to the students that humans would live in lava tubes underneath the moon’s surface.

“When we live in lava tubes, what are we going to need? What are we going to have to build?” Cottenoir asked a group of students. “Energy,” one boy replied.

Students stand on a moon tlimeline

“Right, we’re going to have to have energy,” Cottenoir said. “How are we going to keep the lights on?”

“You could have solar panels for the energy,” said another boy.

The back-and-forth continued for several minutes, until the groups’ time was up. The students appeared fully engaged for the entire 86 minutes. Having gone through three stations, they would return two days later to learn at the other three.

In the day between, Sammons was planning to spend her class time teaching about the moon from a textbook. She says the map is a great complement to classroom learning.

“For me, personally, I’m a visual, tactile learner, so this is very up my alley,” Sammons says. “If I were in middle school doing this now, I would be highly engaged.”

That’s the point, says the AFF’s Aldrin.

“You can take any activity on Earth, put it on Mars or the moon, and it’s just much more interesting and inspiring than doing that activity here,” he says.

“I’ve seen the students’ eyes light up when they learn all these new things,” Fuko says. “You know, we say, ‘We’re moving to the moon,’ and they get super-excited.”

Feb. 18, 2020