Friday, April 20, 2012

Ben Franklin Academy steers GRAIL MoonKAM

Students in Jason Cochrane's science class at Ben Franklin Academy participated in a NASA program that teaches middle-schoolers to identify a moon location they'd like to photograph, transmit coordinates to one of two satellites and have it snap a photo. This moonscape was one the students chose [NASA/MoonKAM/JPL-Cal Tech].
Kevin Simpson
The Denver Post

It's not easy coming up with a hands-on approach to astronomy.

But Jason Cochrane, who teaches sixth-grade science at the new Ben Franklin Academy charter school in Douglas County, came upon a unique opportunity through a NASA program that launched two satellites to orbit the moon with instruments intended solely for educational purposes.

Cochrane learned about GRAIL — short for Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory — while attending a conference of the National Science Teachers Association in Seattle, where some colleagues did a presentation on the program. He immediately signed up his class for the exercise.

In a matter of weeks, students were learning how to identify a geographical location on the moon they wanted to photograph, and how to determine its latitude and longitude and then compute when one of the two satellites would orbit in prime position to take the best picture of the moonscape.

"Within our curriculum, it calls for students to learn about lunar features, mountain ranges, craters, phases of the moon," Cochrane said. "But I've taught about the moon for the last six years, and it's not as interesting as it could be. It's difficult to do anything hands-on when you're talking about space."

When it finally came time to signal the satellites to start shooting photos, his sixth-graders eagerly looked up projected orbits and determined which one would pass closest to their chosen lunar location at the optimum time and be in the best position to snap a picture.

Many of the photos already have been posted to the site.

But Cochrane added a unique local kicker to the exercise. He arranged with Lockheed Martin, which worked on the satellites, to have an engineer who worked on GRAIL visit the class and wrap up the unit.

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