Science students at Westpark Elementary School put the moon under a magnifying glass

It was one small shipment to Westpark Elementary School, and one giant leap for Westpark’s science program.

Earlier this month, science specialist Vicky Anthony took delivery of a half-dozen priceless moon rocks from NASA to conduct a series of science lessons that were — sure, we’ll say it — out of this world.

“The kids were very excited about this,” Anthony said, “and when you’re teaching about space, you can reach nearly all of the standards.”

Westpark students in grades four, five and six eagerly compared anorthosite samples taken from the moon’s highlands to basalt samples from the darker, volcanic regions. They discussed the technology that brought the celestial fragments back to Earth from the Apollo missions of 1969 through 1972. They used a model robotic arm to mimic the sample collection process, grabbing whiffle balls and dropping them into a bucket. And they documented the differences between the lunar chunks and everyday Earth rocks.

We should point out that this kind of hands-on instruction might not be possible without the Irvine Company, which in 2006 pledged more than $20 million over 10 years for art, music and science enrichment. As a result that donation, science specialists like Anthony are able to provide two 60-minute lessons per week to IUSD students in grades four through six.

Still, it’s not every day that their classes get to study actual moon rocks, and there’s a good reason for that.

While borrowing the rocks from NASA might not be as difficult as, say, harvesting them from the moon’s surface, only a limited number of samples were gathered during those early Apollo trips, and that makes the fragments extremely rare and beyond valuable. As such, any teacher who wants to use them for a lesson must first pursue a special certification.

Anthony, who is certified, said she ordered the moon rocks and some separate meteorite samples from the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston with the support of Westpark’s principal, Ann Marie Simmons. Naturally, the request involved filling out a crater’s worth of paperwork. But it was all worth it when the rocks finally arrived, carefully encased in a circular lucite package.

Their debut the week of March 4 prompted plenty of oohs and ahhs from terrestrial Irvine students, who seemed just as impressed by the value of the pieces as they were by the fact that they had originated some 240,000 miles away. Over the next five days, Anthony said her classes asked probing questions about the moon’s formation and meteorites, and they engaged in weighty discussions that underscored the importance of science, math and technology.

“The main lesson was to show how scientists use quantitative and qualitative observations to learn about solar systems,” she said.

Sixth-grader Noah Verdegan said he particularly liked comparing the materials with Earth rocks and noting the various similarities and differences. And it wasn’t lost on him how rare an opportunity this was.

“I was really surprised because it was all the way from the moon, and that is really far away,” said Noah, 12. “And I thought about how there’s less gravity on the moon, and that seems pretty cool.”

Even students in the primary grades were brought into the mix, with Anthony conducting show-and-tell sessions for grades one, two and three.

And who knows? Perhaps one of them will go on to pilot the next spacecraft that brings back a celestial souvenir.

“Their excitement and curiosity level was very high for this,” said Anthony.

Indeed, for the students of Westpark Elementary School, the sky is no longer the limit.