Modeling and mapping lunar surface features

Wednesday 1:35 PT / 2:35 MT / 3:35 CT / 4:35 ET Online
Teaching Demonstration Part of Teaching Demonstrations


Daniel Barth, University of Arkansas Main Campus


The technique of modeling lunar surface features quickly and easily will be demonstrated. Perceived lack of artistic skill is no barrier to effective modeling! Creating an effective model can be done in 1 class period, this model can be used for more activities than simply preparing students for observational labs. Students can use the model to explore mapping and coordinate systems, impact energy of asteroids, lunar phases, and more.


The most fundamental problem in teaching observational astronomy is image saturation - a student looks into a telescope at the Moon and says "Yeah, the Moon - I've seen it." An image in the telescope becomes just on of hundreds, perhaps thousands of images students see each day.
By having students construct a model of lunar surface features in clay, adding maria, lava flows, craters, ray systems, mountains, and more; students become intimately familiar with lunar surface features. Students can then map and explore the surface mathematically as well.
After modeling the lunar surface, the observation time at the telescope is enhanced. Students who bring knowledge to the eyepiece take much more information away from it. Students search for, and recognize features that they have modeled. The geology of the lunar surface becomes more familiar and exploration through a telescope becomes more exciting and engaging, allowing the instructor to conduct more advanced exploration of the structure and evolution of the lunar surface.


The activity is used as a classroom activity that prepares the student for observational laboratory time with a telescope. Without adequate preparation, introductory students tend to view a telescopic image briefly, without effectively exploring the detail it offers. After modeling the lunar surface, students begin to recognize features they have modeled, and typically take 3-5x longer exploring that image.

Why It Works

In the past 20 years, teaching observational astronomy as a laboratory science has become more difficult in spite of the wider availability and greater affordability of equipment. Image saturation due to smart phones, tablets, and ubiquitous 'little screens' provides thousands of individual images to students each day. These images are designed to be viewed for only seconds, reducing students' attention spans and training them not to study images carefully - astronomy requires opposite habits. Modeling first helps students bring more knowledge to the eyepiece, effectively preparing them to study and observe, rather than simply consuming visual images.

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