Class project goes out of this world

Published 7:00 pm Sunday, May 12, 2013

The name of Leslie Hood’s eighth-grade science class at Brookhaven Academy can be a bit of a misnomer. The class is called Earth Science, but the hands-on study that went on there this past semester was truly otherworldly.

Logically, an earth science class might include a study of volcanoes. In my generation, that would have culminated with the construction of a plaster mountain with a hole in the top and painted with watercolor lava flows.

But that was pre-World Wide Web. Now, through the magic of the Internet, scientists, teachers and students are able to collaborate face-to-face in real time to produce amazing leaning experiences for budding scientists, wherever they might be.

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Back to the misnomer of Ms. Hood’s “Earth” science class. As the brainchild of student Conner Griffin, the class chose not to study volcanoes here on our earth, but rather volcanoes on Mars. The focal point of their study, “What effect does elevation have on Martian lava flows?”

Utilizing a program called Blackboard Collaborate, the students of Ms. Hood’s Earth Science class were able to connect with Jessica Swann, the curriculum and technology education specialist for the Mars Education Program located in the Mars Space Flight Facility at Arizona State University.

In typical old-school fashion, the students asked a question, formed a hypothesis, developed methods for testing their hypothesis, collected and analyzed data and formed conclusions based on their findings.

What’s different and innovative in this age of technology is the world – nay, the universe – has become a much smaller place. Ms. Hood and her students were literally able to stretch distance learning from the southwest corner of Brookhaven to a new extreme – some 60 million miles away.

Students were able to direct the Mars Space Odyssey spacecraft THEMIS camera to a particular location on Mars to take photographs for their individual case study.

Four volcanoes were chosen for analysis. Students identified the latitude, longitude and physical characteristics of each. One of the volcanoes studied by the class, Olympus Mons, reportedly has the distinction of being the highest mountain in the universe at some 14 miles high.

From there the students studied the effects of altitude, temperature, atmosphere and gravity on the lava flows of these volcanoes compared to those we are familiar with here on earth.

All of this information was collected for a formal presentation this week to NASA volcanologist Leon Manfredi. I was invited to share in this exciting and anxious moment with the class by Julie Wright, head of school at BA.

Julianna Mills moderated the presentation with the NASA scientist with the utmost professionalism, while relaying questions and answers from her classmates.

Manfredi was impressed, as was I. The detail and depth of the research these students performed for this study was astonishing.

Ms. Hood said Brookhaven Academy is the only school in Mississippi doing this particular type of study. For their efforts, each student received a poster from ASU, NASA and the Jet Prolusion Laboratory with the photograph of the area of Mars they commissioned from the Mars Odyssey Spacecraft THEMIS camera.

There is no question the Internet is changing our world. Sometimes it may seem for the worse, but in cases like this, no doubt for the better.

Thanks to the curiosity of students like Conner and Julianna and the ingenuity of teachers like Ms. Hood, classroom walls are coming down and opportunities for learning are as vast as our universe.

Kudos to Ms. Hood and her students, including: Macey Lea, Shelby Ankinshelin, Patton Bane, Wyatt Bradly, Clayton Brown, James Byrd, Elizabeth Case, Missy Clanton, Jaden Clark, Anna Covington, Kyle Cupit, Grayson Devito, Anmol Narang, Kolby Oglesby, Abby Oliver, Vanessa Reed, Mackenzie Richardson, Harley Smith, Madison Smith, Bailey Stewart, Canon Travis, Fisher Warren, Colton Watson, Jacob Wiggins, Alli Williams, Anna Williams and Penn Wilson.

Rick Reynolds is president/publisher of The Daily Leader. Contact him at