Teacher Innovator Institute Day 4: Thursday, July 18, 2019
On Thursday, July 18, 2019 we were in two locations on the National Mall for our Teacher Innovator Institute. We started in the Museum of Natural History and ended in the American History Museum.
The Meteorite Collection
We took the Metro System to Metro Central and then to the Archive stop and walked to the Natural History museum. It was already turning out to be a stiflingly hot day, with a record setting heat wave in Washington, D.C. and 70% humidity. I was glad to sit inside the atrium waiting for the museum to open, because at least the air conditioning inside was blowing through the doors into the atrium. Separated in cohorts, then the 2019 cohort walked into the museum to the meteorite collection where we further split into two groups. My group was asked to hang out for about an hour and to look for something in the museum that represented us. I had already done that on Tuesday when I found the trilobites from western Utah, so I went in search of something to eat as I hadn’t had much breakfast. My supplies from the Target run on Saturday we getting depleted. I found the museum’s café and had some overpriced food just to keep myself together for the rest of the morning. I also took photos of a model of a megalodon, the largest shark ever to grace the planet.
We met back upstairs in the meteorite collection, where Dr. Cari Corrigan led us through an almost hidden set of doors and through security systems to the meteorite vault. It had a long table in the center with storage cabinets and lockers along the walls. A poster at one end advertized a “cool” vacation trip to collect meteorites in Antarctica. We donned gloves as Dr. Corrigan explained the meteorites she was showing us. With each one, she handed it around so that we could pick it up in our own hands and photograph it. Each one was more interesting than the last, and she told stories of how they were found and identified.
We began with a piece of a meteorite that had crashed through the roof of a house in Sylacauga, Alabama in 1954. It bounced off a radio and smacked Ann Hodges in the hip as she was napping. This is the only known meteorite to have actually hit a human being, and odds of this are astronomical (sorry about the pun). You have a better chance of being sucked up by a tornado, blown across the state by a hurricane, and hit by lightning all at the same time. The result was a nasty bruise and instant celebrity that Ann wasn’t ready for and didn’t welcome.
The next meteorite smashed into the back end of a red Chevy Malibu parked in Peekskill, New York in 1992. The bright, greenish fireball was witnessed by thousands across the Eastern United States. It was a Friday evening in October, so many people who were filming local football games caught the fireball on camera. It broke up over Kentucky, passed over West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and hit the ground in Peekskill. One piece of it brought a bit of fame and fortune to the 18-year-old owner of the car, Michelle Knapp. She had recently bought the car for $400 and sold it to a meteorite collector for $25,000. The meteorite itself was sold by her family for $50,000.
The next meteorite was the largest piece we got to see. Dr. Corrigan showed us the largely gray fragment with white inclusions and said it was a piece of a meteorite that landed near Allende, Mexico in 1969. Planetary scientists descended (sorry, more puns) on the town and recovered hundreds of pieces. Using radiometric dating, they found it was the oldest meteorite yet recovered and its gray areas dated to 4.65 billion years ago. The white areas were “dust bunnies” that formed from pre-solar grains, parts of which have been dated to over 5 billion years old. That makes this the oldest known object on Earth that has remained substantially unaltered. Technically, all of the atoms in our bodies are much older than the solar system, but they have been recombined so many times that we can’t know their origin. The Allende meteorite, except for a brief burning crash through Earth’s atmosphere, has remained unchanged since our solar system started to form. And I got to hold a piece of it – the oldest object on Earth!
Dr. Corrigan also passed around a fragment of the Chelyabinsk meteorite that exploded over Russia in 2013. It was the most documented of all meteorites, with dashboard cameras from cars all over that part of Siberia recording the event, as well as videos of the shockwave as it blasted out windows all over the city. I asked her if any fragments of the Tunguska event of 1908 were ever recovered, and she said no. That air burst was the most violent meteor event in recorded history. The glow from that explosion was seen as far as Paris and London.
She then passed out several meteorites that came from the moon, blasted off by impacts and traveling through space to land on Antarctica. Some of the pieces were enclosed in domes or in plastic boxes, but one was a small piece she handed around by itself. As I was holding it in my right hand and trying to photograph it with my left, I didn’t have the tactile sense I needed because of the gloves. It slipped from my hand and dropped to the floor.
I dropped the Moon.
Fortunately Dr. Corrigan didn’t see this happen as I was on the other side of the table from her, but several of the other teachers around me were aghast. So was I. Even more fortunately, it did not break and appeared undamaged. Later, as I thought about it, it occurred to me that this small rock had been through quite a bit already – it was blasted off the Moon by a violent impact, traveled through the vacuum of space for 250,000 miles before burning through Earth’s atmosphere to smash into a glacier in Antarctica, then get ground by glacial forces over thousands of years until it was inexorably pushed up onto the side of a mountain range, collected by planetologists, and brought back to the U.S. for storage and analysis. A drop from my hand three feet to the floor was unlikely to damage it, but I was still terribly embarrassed to have added insult to injury for this poor little rock.
This incident has now been added to my all-time most embarrassing moments. It ranks number six. Number five was having a major Halloween costume malfunction in front of a class of 8th graders three years ago. Number four was the “How to Handle a Woman” debacle when a group of us tried out for a solo and ensemble competition in high school. The try out did not go well. The choir director was trying so hard not to laugh that his face turned purple. Number three was the time I got neodymium magnets stuck up my nose while presenting a lesson activity on gravity assist maneuvers to a group of 25 high school teachers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2002. I don’t talk about numbers two and one.
A Chunk of Mars
I did my best to recover, but the other teachers were a lot more cautious about letting me handle the meteorites on my own. Dr. Corrigan then explained a meteorite that had puzzled all the experts. It had definitely not come from an asteroid or other conventional source. Finally, a scientist got the idea to analyze small pockets of gas trapped inside the meteorite and discovered they matched the isotopes of air on Mars. A large asteroid impact had blasted this rock off of the surface of Mars, then it had traveled through the solar system for untold millions of years before landing on Earth. It joins a handful of known pieces of Mars on Earth, and certainly lends credence to the theories of panspermia, that if life started on Mars or on Earth, it could have spread throughout the solar system by meteorite impacts.
We took a group photo and thanked Dr. Corrigan, then returned to the main meteorite collection. We broke for lunch, and I ate a Philly cheesesteak sandwich from a vendor truck outside the museum.
American History Museum
We met after lunch in the National Museum of American History in a back conference room behind the Scratch Lab. We had several presentations on such subjects as free online graphing calculator simulators and some Mars science activities, although the presenters were again going way too fast. Betty Jo spoke briefly about how her students successfully grew potatoes in Mars soil simulant, but they had to do quite a bit of pH neutralization before the plants would grow well. We built a water filtration system using plastic bottles and common materials such as activated charcoal and pasta.
We also had a presentation on the Smithsonian’s Learning Lab system, which allows a user to search through tens of thousands of artifacts and put together customized online tours and scavenger hunts, add notes and quizzes, and make user experiences for students to follow. I can see this being useful as part of my lunar lessons and other lesson plans to explore objects in the Smithsonian collection. Here is the website: https://learninglab.si.edu/
While we were making the filtration system, my roommate, Jay Hentzen, collapsed onto the floor. He had not been feeling well that morning, and suddenly had been hit by extreme pain. He had to go to an emergency room, where they found he was suffering from a kidney stone. Having had one myself ten years ago, I can relate to the pain he is going through.
We walked from the American History Museum up to Gallery Place where we were scheduled for a group dinner and happy hour at a restaurant and bar in Chinatown. On our way we passed by the Chinese-Chilean fusion restaurant and the Mongolian barbeque place I had eaten at three years before on my first Einstein interview trip, and we passed through the area I had stayed in two years ago on my Research Data Teacher Conference trip. I’ve gotten to know this part of D.C. pretty well.
The restaurant had pasta and pizza bars and a Coke Freestyle machine. My pizza was good and I talked with Seth, Scott, Beth, and some of the other 2018 cohort. After the dinner, others wanted to continue on to other bars, but I needed to get back to the dorms to do laundry; I’m not into the bar scene. I got on the Metro next door at Gallery Place and headed back to Cleveland Park, where I got off and walked to the Target store to buy laundry detergent and more food. Back at the dorms I dropped off my stuff, then walked over into campus to the student union building and put some money on my key card. I went back to the dorms and used the card to do a load of laundry while I called my family at home, as I have done each evening.
I finished the evening grading papers that had been shared with me via Google Docs from my students and the substitute teacher and wrote up my final lesson plans for tomorrow. I had printed out all the worksheets prior to leaving last week, so all I had to do was write up final instructions for the sub. Jay made it back to the dorm late and was still in some pain, but was on pain relievers and thought he might have passed the stone already.