The moonstones

6th December 2002 at 00:00
A national loan scheme allows pupils to handle rocks brought back on the Apollo space missions. Jessie Anderson reports

Flying to the moon remains a distant prospect for most people, but bringing it - or at least part of it - into the classroom is relatively easy.

Pupils at Sedbergh School in Cumbria are among others nationwide who have come face to face with moon rocks brought back by Apollo spacecraft in the 1970s. Four sample packs of the rocks from the 382 kg of lunar material brought back on the Nasa missions have been made available for loan to British schools.

The scheme is run by Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, a government body based in Swindon. The loans are free and are available in packs suitable for four age groups from primary to university levels.

The packs for 11-year-olds to adults include a Perspex disc containing six specimens of moon rocks and dust, microscope slides of moon dust, a set of 35mm slides and a CD-Rom which includes images and animation. As well as the moon rocks there are three specimens of meteorites - stone, iron, and a mixture of the two - which can be handled by pupils. The samples have been selected by the Natural History Museum. There is also a wealth of background material designed for key stages 1 to 4.

Sedbergh School's head of biology, Steve Smith, who has maintained his own youthful interest in astronomy, was allowed to borrow the moon rocks for a week after extensive checks to ensure the school had sufficient facilities for keeping them safe.

The independent school shared its good fortune with others in Cumbria including 10-year-olds at a school in Penrith. They all caught something of Steve Smith's own excitement as he enthused about the moon samples "made from the same atoms as there are on earth - we're all made of these atoms. That's a big truth. It gives you a radically different way of looking at things."

He is eager to encourage pupils to think of wider questions, rather than the specifically scientific. He says the study can be related to English, history, philosophy, religious studies, in fact any subject except modern languages. He says: "It raises questions such as where did the atoms that make up these specimens come from? It leads us to consider the origin of the universe itself."

Junior school pupils, he has found, are particularly receptive to the "feeling" side of the subject. "They react to the idea that this material has been brought back by a voyage of discovery."

For Sedbergh's sixth-formers the experience was "really strange", "very exciting" and "bizarre". "It makes geology and geography more interesting if you can see and hold what you are studying," said 16-year-old Anna, amazed at the weight of a meteorite smaller than a cricket ball. Jo (16) dismissed the microscope samples as "just little bits of dust" but "the meteorites really blew my mind". He's now thinking of becoming an astronaut although, up to his meeting with the meteorites, he had been heading for psychology. Will, whose hobby is caving, was fascinated by the similarity between materials on the moon and the earth. "The earth and the moon are made out of the same stuff and yet they're so different," he said.

But wider issues notwithstanding, it was a 10-year-old Penrith school pupil who posed a particularly pertinent question. Writing to thank Steve Smith for his visit to her school this practical child observed, "I liked the meteorites, but who do you ring if one lands in your garden?"

Joanna Evans, lunar samples loan co-ordinator, Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, SwindonTel: 01793 442030 Email: Joanna.Evans@pparc.ac.uk www.pparc.ac.uk

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