Fly Me to the Moon

“Providing activities that relate to students and capture their interests is a best practice. However, if we want such activities to produce genuine student growth, instructional design must focus on learning outcomes as opposed to the activity itself.”


To this day, one of my favorite all time songs is Fly Me to the Moon, preferably versions sung by Frank Sinatra. There exists a remote possibility of a connection between this preference and my 7th grade science fair project. When I was in 7th grade, the Apollo

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program had recently ended, but the idea of flying to the moon was still a pretty big deal. In fact, when Mr. E., our science teacher, announced the details of that year’s science fair, my buddy, Scott, immediately leaned over and said, “Zoul, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s do our project on whether man can live on the moon!” Thus, what was to become the coolest project in the history of our junior high school--if not the entirety of American public education since its inception--was born.

Over the next several weeks, my dad dutifully drove me over to Scott’s house, where we diligently toiled away for hours on our moon project. Not surprisingly, our project involved paper mache, glue, sawdust, spray paint, and plastic plants, buildings, and human figurines. It also included plastic domes and plastic tubing which connected the “Residential” dome to the “Community” dome to the “Workplace” dome. When finally finished, Scott and I beamed with pride and the smug knowledge that our science fair project would be feted as a masterpiece and we would walk away as first place winners at the annual science fair competition. As we marveled at our finished product, my friend reminded me that we were also supposed to do some research and write a paper determining whether man could actually live on the moon. We threw a few sentences down on paper and prepared for the big event, arguing about who would keep the first place ribbon at their house first.


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The night of the science fair was a pretty big deal. Back then, we all dressed up. I looked pretty spiffy in my maroon velvet blazer and big bow tie. In glancing around at the other projects, it was painfully obvious that ours was the best. Even our friends came by, proclaiming that we were sure to win since our final product was the coolest thing they had ever seen. Then, the big moment: Judges came by our table and asked us a few questions about our findings. For some odd reason, they seemed more focused on the science involved than they were on our actual moon model. One judge asked, “Well, boys, based on what you learned, will it be possible for man to live on the moon?” Scott and I looked at each other incredulously, aghast that a man this obtuse could possibly be serving as a science fair judge. We masked our disappointment in his intellect and, directing him to our model, said, “Well, of course, Sir. Can’t you see? This is where the people will live, this is where they will work, and they will shop and play in this dome over here,” pointing to the various features of our rather amazing model. The second judge was no more erudite than the first, and pressed us again about how these domes would actually operate to allow man to live there. Mildly exasperated, we again directed his attention to our masterpiece and patiently explained the various features we had created. The two judges looked at each other, thanked us, and quickly made their way to the next project. My buddy and I anxiously awaited the announcement of our first place finish and wondered if we were going to be called upon to give a speech once on stage to accept our award.


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Much to our surprise, we not only failed to win first place recognition, we also missed out on the second place, third place, and even honorable mention categories. Our pals were nearly as stunned as we were, with many of them rushing over to tell us we were robbed and that ours was clearly the best in the entire fair.

Although we honestly had no clue at the time why our jaw-dropping project merited zero recognition from the judges, I suspect anyone reading this today has already diagnosed the problem. Our “Science” project was a tad short on “science” even though it was a stunning art project. In fact, we learned nothing at all related to our proposed question about whether living on the moon was feasible. Although I can still recall with great clarity the work we put into the model of the moon, I recall no reading or research we did about the actual question itself. I suspect our “scientific” paper merely described our art project and included nary a word about any scientific considerations pertaining to living on the moon.

Although science fair projects have come a long way in terms of rigor and academic focus since my junior high days, I still worry at times if, in an ever-present quest to “innovate” in our classrooms, we are sacrificing “learning” in the process. Although I am a firm believer in engaging students through high-interest activities and projects and using flashy technology tools to enhance such work, I am perhaps even more adamant that these activities, projects, and technologies must relate to specific learning outcomes designed to grow our students’ knowledge and skills. Over the course of my career in education, I have seen the education pendulum swing from one extreme to another and back yet again, with the two extremes being some version of “traditional” learning and some version of “innovative” learning. Today we are in the most innovative educational environment I have witnessed in decades. My fear, however, is that if we do not remain steadfastly focused on learning outcomes and results, we may soon see the pendulum sway back once more, with a concomitant outcry of of folks demanding a “back to basics” approach to public education. As with almost all educational concerns, we cannot be forced into one or the other. We must continue to provide “innovative” learning experiences, complete with authentic projects and exciting learning activities, but we cannot lose sight of the “learning,” the knowledge and skills students must acquire in the process.
         
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Listening to Sinatra sing about flying to the moon, swinging on stars, and seeing what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars sounds almost as fun as my 7th grade science fair project. However,
gaining actual knowledge about life on the Moon or the science behind space missions to Mars and beyond is decidedly more useful--and can be every bit as fun! Ensuring that our students are engaged in fun, exciting activities while also ensuring they are learning in the process is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!




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