Zoom Past the Moon: The Observatories' first virtual field trip

In May, we told you about some of the ways our scientists are responding to the COVID-19 crisis. In that article, we introduced the Zoom Past the Moon program that Observatories Staff Scientist Juna Kollmeier was developing to connect astronomers with elementary school classes for short lessons on a variety of astronomy topics. 

Following that article, we were contacted by Rachel Schlosser, a 5th grade teacher for Equitas Academy #2, a charter middle school serving the Pico-Union community in Los Angeles County. Pico-Union is one of Los Angeles’ most densely populated neighborhoods and the median household income in 2008 dollars was $26,424 (considered low for both the city and the county). The student community at Equitas is almost entirely minority students—with an estimated 95% Latinx population—and 85% of students are English Learners.

There are 97 students in 5th grade at Equitas and Schlosser teaches science for all of them. Equitas had moved to online only classes in March and in the Zoom Past the Moon program Schlosser saw an opportunity to enhance her space science curriculum.

We sat down with Kollmeier and Schlosser to discuss their experiences with Carnegie’s first “virtual field trip.”

Juna, what was the genesis for this program? What were your goals?

Juna Kollmeier: Actually, like many things, I was inspired by a teacher! Before the pandemic I had Zoomed into a highschool science class in Missoula, Montana, at the request of an amazing teacher. I know that schools are the atoms of many communities, so when they were shut down here, kids lost so much. I could see that this would be devastating, particularly for STEM education and particularly for children whose parents and caregivers couldn't help them with their assignments. But in every crisis, there is opportunity. I saw the school closures as a chance to use an online platform to help teachers give their kids virtual field trips and to stay excited about science.

Rachel, what did you expect from this experience? What were your hopes?

Rachel Schlosser: In conversations with Juna leading up to the actual video session, I got the idea that it would just be a basic overview of a fairly narrow topic with plenty of time for questions and answers. My hope of course was that a lot of students would show up! Engagement with the kids remotely had been a bit spotty leading up to this class—kids were participating in their online assignments, but at many different times—so I wasn’t entirely sure how a synchronous event would go. My biggest hope was that the students who attended would be willing to engage fully and ask questions so that they could take something exciting away from this unique experience. 

What topic(s) did you cover in the class? How did you decide on that topic (or topics)?

JK: Rachael told me that they had just started explorations in space science before the shutdown and described to me what the kids were learning in class. They were working on the Solar System and orbits so I gave them a choice between "Exoplanets!", "When Stars Explode!", and "Black Holes!". Rachel gave the topic choices to the kids, they voted for stellar explosions, and I was happy to oblige. I mean, what kid doesn't like a cosmic explosion?

How did the students respond?

JK: They were awesome. I think they mostly just liked to be with each other learning something new. They had fabulous questions and they were super curious. I gave them some fun homework problems—to find things in the sky. I wanted them to have a connection to their sky—to have a sense of the impossibly large universe out there beyond their current world, which has gotten sadly smaller in the past months.

RS: All of the students were really excited about it—the chat bar of the video meeting was blowing up almost the entire time. We ended up going way over time. It was supposed to be an hour-long class and I cut it at about 80 minutes because I felt bad for Juna being bombarded with all of these questions! My students still wanted to stay on with me afterwards though, so I stayed and answered their questions for another half an hour after that. It was amazing!

Did the experience differ from your expectations? If yes, how so?

JK: I've spoken in classrooms many times before—but I really had no idea how a virtual class session would work. I expected the kids to have a much shorter attention span! I prepared a 20-minute presentation (knowing that online experiences tend to be more exhausting than in-person ones). They were like "Is that all you got?" So, as Rachel said, we went into overtime. It was so inspiring and I was so proud of the kids who showed their resilience and their thirst for knowledge.

RS: And I learned something too! Juna showed us a great graphic that was a continuum of size of star and color spectrum, so that you could see how a whole bunch of different types of stars are categorized. Having that in a graphic let me put together a lot of things that I’d read about or heard discussed before, but didn’t have a frame of reference for.

What was your favorite part of the experience?

JK: I loved seeing the kids connect with each other and the material. I believe all people are born scientists and I love to see that side express itself at all ages. I loved seeing the chat window blow up with questions and I loved to see their curiosity shine. 

RS: I loved seeing and hearing all of my kids get super hyped, especially the kids who (at least in my experience with them throughout this school year) haven’t been over excited about science. In addition, as part of our end-of-the-year culminating activities I host a series of “Be the Expert” mini sessions, where the kids get a turn to be the teacher and give short presentations on things they’ve learned about on their own. One of the kids basically did an in-depth extension of what he learned in the field trip with Juna. It was really special to me to see the lasting impact this class had on my students.

Would you be interested in continuing this program?

JK: Absolutely! We actually have a group of incredible volunteers who are ready to work with more schools to continue into the future—a STEM Corps who can help educators keep the gates of knowledge open during a time when they are shutting in many other ways.

RS: Very much so! Even if schools reopen next year, I’m already looking at piloting a blended learning model in my own classroom because I saw so many gains in kids who had been on the cusp of being successful or hadn’t been successful prior to the closure. Many of them did so much better across content areas when they were allowed to work in their home environment. So within that model, this would fit great.

I think in general the Zoom Past the Moon program is a super cool resource for kids and I would love to be able to give them opportunities like this in the future. I think it was really beneficial. We got some kids who hadn’t been excited about science super excited. And for a lot of kids who already enjoy science, space science is their favorite but it can sometimes be a challenge to teach because it’s a very “hands off” science -- you can’t touch it. So having an expert like Juna share their passion and excitement for space is a great way to enhance classroom learning. It was a great experience for us and I’d love to see this program continue in some way.

For more information about the Zoom Past the Moon program, or to find out how you can help support it, please contact OBShelps@carnegiescience.edu.