Astronomer from French Camp leads lesson about solar system at Shannon Middle School

By Todd Vinyard

By Chris Kieffer
NEMS Daily Journal

If Earth was the size of a basketball, how big would the moon be?

Just ask students at Shannon Middle School.

Those students were visited last week by astronomer James Hill, director of Rainwater Observatory and Planetarium in French Camp. Hill spoke to the students about the solar system at the request of science teachers Tracy Leake and Tia Green. His appearance was funded by a grant from NASA’s Mississippi Space Grant Consortium.

Astronomy is part of the science curriculum in sixth, seventh and eighth grades, Leake said, noting that Hill’s presentation was particularly helpful in presenting the topic. Green agreed.

“The kids will better retain this information,” she said. “In a classroom, you don’t have time for models and visuals. It sticks with them when they see a presentation.”

Hill directed a computer tour from the sun to Pluto, showing several facts and photos on a projector screen. He also used props to demonstrate the size and distance of various heavenly objects.

After holding a basketball that represented Earth, he instructed one of the students to grab a tennis ball, which represented the moon’s relative size.

Hill showed the students how far apart those two objects would be – a distance that is equal to about 10 times the Earth’s circumference. The scientist wrapped a rope around the basketball 10 times and then straightened it to demonstrate.

“It was helpful because sometimes we don’t get to interact with what we do, and it helps us to be able to watch him and interact,” said Shannon sixth-grader Kadie Edwards.

Hill also used a large yellow inflatable ball to represent the sun and a tiny pebble to show the Earth’s relative size. He placed the two objects in opposite corners of the school’s auditorium.

“I learned how far the Earth was from the sun,” said eighth-grader Louis Lettieri. “It is a long way.”

Hill said the Rainwater Observatory leads about 200 educational programs each year. The goal for his presentations is to spark a greater interest in science.

“We do this and we do several teacher workshops every year and offer continuing education credits,” he said. “Hopefully reaching the kids and the teachers will get everyone excited about science. Enthusiasm covers a multitude of sins.”

Hill emphasized math throughout his presentation, often instructing students to compute the answers to various questions he posed.

“Science education has really gone down in this country since Sputnik,” he said, referring to several spacecraft missions launched by the Soviet Union that prompted the United States to increase its emphasis on science back in the 1950s.

“Science is hard because it takes math. It is a battle to have kids get excited about science.”

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or

Click video to hear audio