Sunday, August 23, 2009

UU Galaxy: A Report Back to Mission Control

Note: The "Stardust Curriculum for Kids" and some of the other materials that we used during our summer program can be found at

In a cooperative effort among four congregations and five religious professionals, this summer we held our first ever children's summer adventure program at First Unitarian Church of Worcester.

For one week in July, we hosted 45 kids ages 4-12 from around the central Massachusetts region. We called our summer program:

UU Galaxy
Together with a large group of teen and adult counselors and counselors-in-training, the kids (among other things):
  • Conducted science experiments, including making mini bottle rockets
  • Made "galaxies in a jar," alien puppets, and other galaxy art
  • Visited with animals in a special exhibit called "Frogs, what planet are you from?"
  • Bounced around in a moonwalk
  • Attended an alien puppet show
  • Spent quiet time in our mini-planetarium
  • Collected enough recyclables to buy several small Heifer animals
  • Collected a number of used eyeglasses and cell phones for programs that help folks who need them for safety
  • Played "space games"
  • Heard the story of the universe, from its creation in the big bang through present times
  • Created a beaded timeline of the universe
  • Participated in worship, around a "campfire" everyday
The children learned about:
  • Our solar system
  • Our galaxy and its "solar neighborhoods"
  • Stars (their definition, why they are what they are, what they do, and their lifecycles)
  • Black holes and the hole at the center of our galaxy
  • The cosmic creation of all the elements on earth (except for helium...our helium being created right here)
  • The reason our bodies are as old as the universe (think hydrogen that has been around since the big bang)

On Friday, a week's worth of work among our oldest kids, the 8-12 year olds, culminated in the inflation and placement of 538 helium-filled balloons as a 3-D model galaxy in Unity Hall. Each balloon represented a solar neighborhood, with multiple stars and their planets.

The model was made with instruction, guidance, and assistance from the actual creator of the much more detailed 3-D Garden Galaxy in Hawaii. The Garden Galaxy is-- to our knowledge-- the world's largest, greatest 3-D model of the galaxy.

The children began the project early in the week by placing many dots on each balloon, each dot representing a star. Unforunately, many of these "stars" rubbed off during the week through handling and even more rubbed off with inflation, even though we used Sharpie markers. However, the point of the dots was not lost on the kids. We found out that if we were to use an object to represent each star and its planets, we'd need to use sand stacked two to six feet high! Then our own solar system would be just one grain of sand!

During the week the children made a grid on the floor using tape, and then mapped the galaxy with string. We used Garden Galaxy materials for the mapping process, some of which are viewable on the Garden Galaxy website.

Though we were not particularly successful, we attempted to put more of the blue and white balloons on the edges of the model, lower than the dark and light red balloons. This was our attempt, upon the suggestion of Garden Galaxy's creator Jon Lomberg, to demonstrate the profile view of the galaxy. In fact, scientists did not have a good idea of what the center of the galaxy was or looked like until recently, partially because our view was obstructed by the bulge at the core. The bulging core of the galaxy tends to be red/orange, while the disc appears blue/white. Though the coloring differs, you can view a 3-D demonstration of the galaxy, including the bulge, at Planet Quest.

The older children worked on the galaxy every day of the week, and on Friday spent most of the day completing its construction with the finally-inflated balloons. After its completion, they enthusiastically gave tours to the younger children and the parents, though they were a bit disappointed they did all that work only to have the balloons deflate at the end of the day!

Here the model is getting close to completion. While difficult to make out in the picture, each arm of the galaxy is distinct, forming a spiral shape that the children and their parents were able to walk through like a labyrinth.

The children thought 538 balloons didn't look like much in such a big room. This was a reminder that our own galaxy is one in perhaps hundreds of billions throughout the universe. The children called the balloons that accidentally floated to the ceiling, "Andromeda," a neighboring galaxy. Not yet placed at the time of the picture, a yellow balloon represented our own solar neighborhood. We also had not yet placed the black trash can at the center of the galaxy, which represented the black hole. We put deflated and popped balloons inside the trash can to represent those things which end up in the black hole. You can view more about the center of our galaxy at the Garden Galaxy page on the galactic center.

One tiny dot on a single, yellow balloon marked our own solar system. That tiny dot, of course, includes the many miles stretching from the sun all the way out to Pluto and the farthest reaches of the solar system!!

As far as we are aware, this was the second largest 3-D model of the galaxy ever created (let alone created by a small group of elementary school children)!! Our circle was 30 feet in diameter.

If you can make a small donation to Garden Galaxy in the name of UU Galaxy of First Unitarian Church, it would make a huge difference to the educational efforts of that project and would be a nice way for us to thank the garden's creator, Jon Lomberg, for his hours of time as a volunteer project consultant for us.
Through the creation of our model galaxy, the kids:
  • Had a hands-on experience with the vastness of creation
  • Displayed a sense of joy in how many stars there are in our galaxy and beyond
  • Were impressed with how very, very small our own solar system is, and by extension, our own planet
The children put into use their ever-increasing knowledge about stars, planets, black holes, the elements, and creation. They also put into use the following skills:
  • Math
  • Grid-making
  • Mapping
  • Cooperation
  • Negotiation
  • Shared leadership
  • Planning and following-through with plans
  • Religious imagination
We owe a special thank you to Randy Ingham, Jen and Jehan Dolbashian (and friend), Amy Borg, Gina Gerfao, David Spanagel, and Fran Kraus for inflating all those balloons for the kids! We also owe a thank you to the many parents who made special donations to UU Galaxy, including these folks from our own congregation (and my apologies to anyone I've accidentally left off this list): Joyce Hancock, Amy Borg, and Carrie West.

1 comment:

ladywalker said...

It looks like it was a lot of work, but I am sure the kids will remember the message--that we are a part of something much, much larger than we are.