The immensity of the solar system can be difficult for young students to grasp, but now Jeffco students can take a long and educational walk through the sun’s neighborhood.
On Oct. 7, Jefferson County Schools unveiled one of two recently completed solar space walk exhibits at the Mount Evans Outdoor Laboratory School.
Each measuring slightly less than half a mile long from end to end, the exhibits are scaled-down models of the sun and planets within Earth’s immediate vicinity. The exhibits were donated, built and installed at the Windy Peak and Mount Evans schools over a five-year period by Littleton aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin.
Representatives from the school district, the Outdoor Lab Foundation and a handful of Lockheed employees were on hand for the unveiling Oct. 7. Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson had astronomically good things to say about the solar walk, calling Jeffco students the “luckiest kids in America” for having local businesses so dedicated to improving the quality of education.
Each of the planets in the exhibit is displayed in a cylindrical tower along the hillside and distanced according to the same scale. Everyone involved felt the scaling was key to students realizing the sheer expanse of our solar system.
Project originator and former Lockheed Martin engineer Poti Doukas agrees.
“You can tell (the kids)] are finally starting to get it when their head starts bobbing back and forth between the planets,” Doukas said.
“It’s the same scale for size and distance. So at this scale, the sun would be just a little over 6 inches in diameter,” Doukas said.
In the exhibit, 1 foot would equal roughly 1.7 million miles in real space, Doukas says. And to reach the next closest star at the same scale, one would have to travel to Venezuela, he said.
Former Jeffco science teacher Sue Shucard also sees the value in a to-scale approach.
“This way, you’re saying so many feet equals so many millions of miles. I think (the kids) get a better idea of how close they are to the other planets,” said Shucard.
Sandy Craig, Mount Evans Outdoor Lab School principal, sees a bright future for integrating the exhibits into the school’s existing curriculum. Students are currently learning biological sciences like geology, forestry, ecology and astronomy, Craig says.
“The greatest benefit is that it puts space science into the hands of kids. So often, space science is something abstract; you can’t ever really touch or see it. With (this exhibit), now you can,” she said.
Craig also expressed hopeful optimism for the future of the outdoor lab program in general.
“This program is expensive, and with the current economic and budget crisis across the state in education, we have got to fight to keep these kinds of programs going,” she said.
“This is where true hands-on application, experiential and life lessons come in. So anything we can all do across the board to keep these kinds of programs going, the better.”
The outdoor lab program serves approximately 6,000 Jeffco sixth-graders and enlists the help of nearly 1,800 high school leaders from throughout the district each year.