Last November, I visited Williams Elementary School in Austin to talk to a fifth grade science class about ‘The Moon’s Mysterious Water’. This is a long overdue post to share the material that I prepared for this, and some notes that I penciled down afterwards.
I’ve linked to three files here: the slides from a quick (ten-minute) talk that we started with, a worksheet, and accompanying maps (for which you’ll need to get your own blue/purple dots and gold stars). I should mention that I did not include sources for the images in the slides to avoid visual clutter, but do mean to add a slide later with image credits. The slides (embedded below) outline the story of why water matters, the search for water on the Moon, and the question of comets’ role in delivering water and other ingredients for life to the inner solar system. There are some satisfyingly big ideas to think about in there and some interesting (though I say so myself) tie-backs to elementary school level science, such as the fact that although water exists on our planet as liquid, vapor and solid, this is not the case on all solar system bodies.
The worksheet activity was motivated by the fact that there are currently several teams that are synthesizing data-sets from multiple missions to identify lunar landing sites of scientific interest (along the lines of this study by the Lunar and Planetary Institute), with cold-trapped volatiles at the lunar poles being a major subject of interest. I liked the idea of giving fifth-graders a chance to work with a real planetary science problem, and to explore the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera’s gorgeous map of the lunar South Pole. The worksheet is fairly self-explanatory, so give it a go if you like!
Interacting with the fifth-graders was an absolute delight - they were very curious, very endearing and very funny. I have a renewed and boundless respect for the wonderful elementary school teachers who got them all to sit more or less still. I also learned a ton. One major take-away for me (which in retrospect should perhaps have been obvious) was that for this age group, spoken communication was vastly more effective than written. If I were to do this again, I’d spend a little more time talking through the activity step by step. Being possessed of an abundance of enthusiasm, when given a three-page handout, half of the fifth-graders started at the end or the middle, as opposed to the beginning as one might assume. It was also evident that at least this group of eleven-year olds loved to talk (to me, their teachers and each other), which is a great thing - I would rethink how to implement the activity in such a way as to channel this better. Something else to watch out for is to make sure that the students are comfortable with comparing different maps of the same region (“Here’s Shackleton crater on Map 1, where is it on Map 2?”). Once they got it, they seemed to get it very well, but this is a skill that needs to click into place.
Fifth-graders ask lovely questions; I was surprised and pleased by how much in depth we got to talk about things. Someone wanted to know if the Moon was dusty because of all the impacts breaking things up, which was very nail-on-head. One of the questions l liked the most was whether the maria were dark because they were wet - I would never have thought of that myself (lots of open mouths on learning that the dark patches are long-ago lava flows). One of the answers I enjoyed giving the most was how we know that what LCROSS saw was water, and whether there was anything else there - it turns out that fifth-graders really do understand spectroscopy if you explain it to them, which was very satisfying.
All things considered, I think a good time was had by all (at least, I enjoyed myself hugely). If you have any fifth-graders you'd like to engage in conversation about the Moon, please do feel free to use the slides and activity - and of course, I’d love to know how it goes.