The Universe in the Classroom

AstroCappella — A Musical Exploration of the Universe

Beyond the original grant

While the original grant has run out, enthusiasm within the Chromatics has not. Their many interactions with teachers encouraged them to expand on the AstroCappella concept. Specifically, teachers repeatedly asked for new songs about the solar system. AstroCappella 2.0 is chock-full of solar system information, from the largest gas giant to the smallest meteor. Background information on the CD-ROM includes images, multi-media materials, and unconventional but accessible lesson plans. Karen Smale took the lead on developing the materials for the CD-ROM according to her own educational vision. "Computers and the visual media have advanced our access to a wide variety of resources for education and entertainment," she notes. "Students expect multi-sensory input — they get it in their video games — so why not take a multi-sensory or multi-media approach to science? Images grab the public's attention — our most visited outreach Web site in the Laboratory for High Energy Astrophysics is the Astronomy Picture of the Day. So we've combined images and music, videos and hands-on activities like puzzles, games, and creative projects to let students use as many senses as possible and help them to actively participate in the learning process."

Many of the lesson plans revolve around food. Miso soup is used to demonstrate solar convection. Students can take an edible tour of the solar system with common supermarket items standing in as scale models of the planets. Chocolate fondue and ice cream are made and tied to ideas of temperature, and the habitable zone around the Sun. "The teachers we work with encouraged us to use food as a motivator for kids of all ages," Boyd says. "This past summer, in a week-long workshop, we tested many of the lesson plans. By far the most popular were those involving food!"

Within the songs themselves, as well as the background information, new discoveries are highlighted throughout. "I'm committed to the idea that students and the general public have a right to learn about and enjoy our modern picture of the universe," Boyd says. "For centuries, people have been fascinated with the universe, and Earth's and humanity's place in it. We've learned so much about our solar system, our Galaxy, and the universe, but many times the most exciting, most thought-provoking ideas don't make their way to students and the taxpayers who are footing the bill. Even in my lifetime, we've made such enormous strides in our knowledge of the Solar System. Starting with the lunar landings, we've been exploring our neighbor planets with ever-increasing technology, and finding out all kinds of new things, big and small. We've tried to get this sense of awe, and of continuous learning, into the AstroCappella project: the Pluto (planet or Kuiper Belt object?) controversy makes an appearance in the song Nine Planets. The expanding universe is mentioned in several songs."

Getting the Word Out

Members of the Chromatics, and other educators, develop and present teacher workshops that include a harmonic dose of AstroCappella. The singers have traveled as far afield as Orlando, FL, and Honolulu, HI to bring their musical view of the universe to local educators. AstroCappella songs make frequent appearances in the educator workshops developed by Laura Whitlock, former head of Goddard's High Energy Astrophysics outreach program, and honorary master teacher. "The music of AstroCappella serves as a great hook to gain the attention of students and, perhaps, even to invade their minds with choruses of science," says Whitlock. "The activities included can then follow up on the concepts embedded in the songs. At a recent workshop in Palm Springs, CA, one teacher came up to me to say that she had been teaching the electromagnetic spectrum to her class. Their response was 'less than enthusiastic'. This teacher had heard the Chromatics perform some of the AstroCappella songs several years ago and thought the music might help engage her students. She played 'Cosmic Radio Show' for the class and had them try the activity to create a radio antenna out of an umbrella. She was thrilled at the response of the students and reported that for days afterward she heard 'Hey, ho, did you know there's a Universe in the radio?' coming out of her students."

The Chromatics now routinely sneak an AstroCappella song or two into their regular concerts as a way of turning their audiences on to science. They have been banquet entertainers for science and technology conferences, and have appeared on PBS and CNN while performing AstroCappella songs. In November 2001 they performed at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and the Maryland Science Center. "Music and science are both about passion," notes Boyd. "We've created music that lets us share our joy about discovery and our wonder about the universe around us with others. Some people feel afraid of science, others feel science has nothing in it for them. If our music awakens in them the realization that we've just found planets around other stars, or that the early moments of the birth of the universe are imprinted in some of the photons all around us, then I think we've done those people a service. If they're further inspired to dig deeper into the science behind these marvelous realizations, then we've helped their teachers as well."

CD coverHow can I get a copy?

The Chromatics — Padi Boyd, Alan Smale, Karen Smale, Lisa Kelleher, Deb Nixon, John Meyer, and Paul Kolb — would like to reach the widest possible audience of teachers, informal educators, and the general public with AstroCappella 2.0. Visit their Web site at www.astrocappella.com to order copies. The CDs are also distributed through the Primarily A Cappella Catalog, the Mainely A Cappella Catalog and the Science Songwriters' Association.

Praise for the Chromatics received directly via their Web site:

"I just wanted to let you know how much I have enjoyed your AstroCappella CD. I have had it playing in my office to learn the songs for a class and the reaction I get from people coming in is priceless. I will notice them humming or keeping beat with the music then the words sink in and they can not believe it is an educational song that is also fun to listen to. The touch of having a Web page with activities that go with the song is outstanding. If you do any more Educational CDs I would like to be first in line."
— Ann McCartney, Georgia State U., GA

"If science at school had been this interesting, I wouldn't have always slept through it."
— Anonymous South Carolina 4-H Member, SC

"I am a junior high science teacher working with students on a science Olympiad team. One of our events is astronomy and we stumbled across a snippet of the Doppler song in our search for information. We were so excited about the song that we had to know the words. We called in our surfing the net expert and quickly discovered more fun songs!!!!!!! WE MUST HAVE THAT CD!!! We have spent over an hour listening and singing along."
— Krisi Williams, Paulding Middle School, Paulding, OH

"Your music is fantastic!!! Thank you very, very much!"
— Cindy Langelier, Novelty, OH

"My students could always remember the lyrics to commercials or TV sitcoms Gilligan's Island, Brady Bunch, Burger King but never the parts of a cell. Using music to teach and to learn is effective but teachers just don't have the time to create lyrics to songs (some of us just don't have the talent). Your CD is one of the most innovative uses of music for science education. The information in the songs elevates the level of understanding for some very complicated concepts in astronomy for middle school students. The activities are also outstanding that accompany the songs. Thank you for giving me an effective tool to use in the classroom."
— Cheryl Wood, Orlando science teacher, FL

"I was in Las Vegas and heard you perform. I received a copy of your CD and book. Thank you very much. You are excellent educational entertainment ... I have used it with my own high school astronomies and they think you are really "cool." They like the beat and the tune, irrespective of the words (or story, as in the Doppler shift song)."
— Jeanne Bishop, Westlake High School, Westlake, OH

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