Take Your Class to the Moon
Get your kids talking about our lunar neighbor with these hands-on lessons.
By Erin Bailey
When the Soviet Union put a satellite into space in 1957, the United States reacted by creating NASA in 1958. President John F. Kennedy later gave the agency the mission of putting a man on the moon before the close of the 1960s. To engage this generation in the original mission of NASA, try these lunar lessons.
Phases of the Moon
The moon is an object of curiosity for children and adults alike. Poets write about it, scientists study it, and children dream of traveling to it. Observing the phases of the moon over the course of a month helps children visualize the moon’s path around the earth. Because the activity requires watching the moon for just over a full month, be sure to plan around school breaks.
Remind learners that the amount of the moon that we see in the night sky depends on how much of it is illuminated. Try sharing The Moon Book by Gail Gibbons or Phases of the Moon by Gillia M. Olson as an introduction. Each student will be given two white paper plates that represents the moon. Have each person write his/her name on the back of one of them. Keep one plate for later.
Show your young astronomers how to color one of their plates to represent the dark part of the moon. You might want to divide the class into four sections and work with each group to color a different phase. NASA's image collection has some very clear representations of the moon at various phases, which work nicely for this demonstration. Each child should then be assigned a night to watch the moon. Spacing the observations to every other night will make the changes more noticeable. If you stretch the observations so that a new moon cycle begins, it will allow them to see how the pattern repeats each month.
Every time a plate is returned, hang it across the top of the white board or around the edge of the science bulletin board so that the whole class can see how the moon is changing, bit by bit.
Craters on the Moon
One way that scientists can determine the age of a newly discovered planet or moon is by studying its surface craters. More craters mean an older surface. Water molecules from below the surface of Mars have recently been discovered near impact craters and will be represented by cake sprinkles. In this activity, the class will have the opportunity to study how impact craters form and what scientists can learn about deeper layers by studying what is on the surface.
The patterns of debris that appear around each crater are called ejecta patterns, or rays. Regolith is a scientific name for pulverized lunar rocks. When the moon’s surface is smashed by incoming rocks, it turns to a fine powder, represented by the flour and cocoa powder.
For each group you will need:
- 9x9 plastic or metal pan
- 2 cups of flour
- 1 table spoon of cake sprinkles (not white or brown)
- ½ cup fine sand (not white or brown)
- 1/4 cup of cocoa powder
- 1 small pebble
- 2 larger pebbles
Layer the flour, cake sprinkles, colored sand, and cocoa powder in the pan one at a time. For the best results, use a sifter or colander to make even layers. Instruct participants to pick up the smallest pebble and drop it into one corner from shoulder height. Have them snap a photo of the pattern made. In the opposite corner, they should drop the largest pebble from the same height. Again, they should snap a photo. Now have your young scientists drop the other large pebble into the center of the pan from above their heads and take a picture. Depending on the age (and aim) of your students, one of the pebbles can be thrown so that it strikes the surface at an angle, which will produce a very different ejecta pattern. Or the teacher can do this for the group.
Questions for Discussion:
- How many different layers of regolith can be seen around the craters? What does this reveal about the force of the impact?
- If any cake sprinkles have made it to the surface, tell the participants that the sprinkles represent water molecules in the form of ice, which might not otherwise be detectable.
- What might their appearance tell scientists about the planet?
- How does the ejecta pattern change with the size of the pebble?
- What changes occur when the height from which the pebble is dropped increases?
Although NASA’s mission has changed many times since its establishment in 1958, its focus on research and applications of new technologies has not. You can discover other space-related investigations for your class on Lesson Planet.
Participants get a hands-on lesson on how the moon orbits the earth and how the earth orbits the sun. Appropriate for grades 2-6. The lesson can be completed in one class period with a little prep time beforehand.
Allow several days to complete the engaging activities in this set of lessons. Although written for grades K-2, the activities could be made more complex to appeal to older learners. Some of the learning objectives include: identifying the size of the moon in relation to Earth, investigating the source of the moon’s light, and describing the differences between the surfaces of the moon and the earth.
This informative article provides lesson ideas to support your budding scientists’ interest in the moon. It offers many resource links as well as ways to investigate the moon’s influence on ocean tides.