Geologist tracks “cosmic dust” with help of local teachers
Every day tiny particles from meteorites fall to Earth and come to rest in backyards, schoolyards, parking lots and abandoned lots. In fact, according to Daniel Murray, a professor of geosciences at the University of Rhode Island, “every night you’re likely to find one on the hood of your car and on every other surface the size of the hood of your car. That’s how the planet accumulates material.”
With the help of local middle and high school teachers and a grant from Rhode Island Space Grant and the Rhode Island Office of Higher Education, Murray and his colleague Jim Sammons are tracking these cosmic dust particles and other materials that travel around the globe on Earth’s weather patterns.
For the last two summers, Murray and Sammons have offered workshops to teach local science teachers how to collect, analyze and identify micrometeorites and other cosmic dust. They hope to recruit hundreds of teachers around the country to their effort, eventually posting their findings to a website and comparing the patterns of what they find with global weather patterns.
“This activity will provide my students with the opportunity to conduct real science in the classroom, not just canned, known-outcome book labs,” said South Kingstown High School science teacher Kristin Klenk. “Kids at this age think that we — teachers, scientists — have all the answers. The idea that no one has all the answers will be one of the biggest learning experiences in this project. If we had all the answers why would anyone conduct research? We don’t know what we’ll find.”
Other teachers from South Kingstown, North Kingstown, Narragansett, Exeter, Providence, Middletown, Portsmouth and West Warwick have also participated in the workshops and learned how to incorporate the lesson into their science curriculum.
The activity was the brainchild of Sammons, a retired Jamestown teacher who now develops innovative science programs for educators. “I’m always looking at science topics that get short shrift in middle and high school science classes,” he said. “Astronomy is one of those topics where, after learning the names of the planets, most schools don’t get into any of the more detailed processes. Recently there has been tremendous improvement in the understanding of micrometeorites, so I started wondering how easy it would be to catch one of them. And it turned out to be very easy. The program grew from there to an open-ended investigation.”
Murray said that micrometeorites aren’t the only dust that students are likely to collect in their science lesson. Soot from power plants, pollen from trees and plants, and bug parts are also commonly collected, among many other things.
Last year Murray and Sammons traced a dust storm in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia and found that dust particles found their way to the eastern United States in just two weeks. Dust from the Sahara Desert in North Africa commonly blows across the Atlantic Ocean and ends up on the eastern seaboard as well.
Teachers interested in learning more about Murray’s workshops and his cosmic dust activities can contact him at 874-2197 or email@example.com.
By Todd McLeish