Friday, August 8, 2014

Planet Rock!

I had the good fortune to run into Shanil Virani at a party earlier this summer, and I was able to talk to him about some of the educational songs I had written. Dr. Virani is the director of the John C. Wells Planetarium at JMU. He told me about the Space Explorers Camp they run each summer, and suggested that there were some facts and concepts that students at the previous year's camp had difficulty grasping or retaining. He was excited about the thought of using music as part of the instruction for the camp.

One of the problem areas was remembering the order of the planets in our solar system from the innermost to the outermost, and knowing basic facts about them, such as their relative sizes and basic composition.

I set out to write a song that would teach it in a memorable way, and sent him a few early drafts, but I still didn't know where it would lead.

So, I was pleased to get a call on the second day of camp, asking if I could come in later in the week and teach the song to the kids. The only problem was that I hadn't finished the song yet! I tinkered with a number of ideas, and this was the end result:

As you can see, there's a kinesthetic aspect to the song, which goes a long way towards reinforcing concepts of the planets' relative sizes, helps give students a way to interact with the song, and serves as an additional mnemonic device. I'm grateful for the assistance of some of the counselors in refining the kinesthetic movements before I taught it to the kids. And a few of the motions were decided on by kids during the session. This aspect was inspired by the work of Dr. Lodge McCammon, who also writes some wonderful songs.

The song continued to be refined in the next few days. When I taught it to the kids, I mentioned "Pluto and Charon." It was suggested, then, that I replace Charon with Ceres, which, like Pluto, has the status of a dwarf planet, since it is massive enough to shape itself into a sphere, but not massive enough to clear its orbit. When we recorded the video, there was a bit of each, but the official line in the song is now "Pluto and Ceres."

I also was unhappy with the grammar of "the reason they are planets is..." I had tried several lines here, and it wasn't until I slept on it that I came up with "They qualify as planets with their orbit and their mass." So, the older lyric is in the video above, but the newer lyric is the one I used for the recording on iTunes and the various other outlets where one can buy the track.

Scientific side note: There are three qualifications a body in our solar system must meet to be a planet in the eyes of the IAU by the current standard. The first is that it must orbit The Sun. The second is that it must be massive enough to pull itself into a spherical shape. The third (and newest qualification) is that it must "clear its neighborhood." The work of Stern and Levison suggests that this third qualification is also a function of mass and orbit, and thus I feel comfortable making the statement that "They qualify as planets with their orbit and their mass."

Dr. Virani was also pleased that I mentioned that "those are the planets in order, at least the way they're currently defined." The current definition was arrived at in 2006, but for many years we were taught that Pluto was the 9th planet, and it's entirely possible that at some point in the future, the definition will change again.

I will be making a few more videos for this song, including a lyric video and some videos to help explain the lyrics and to teach the movements, to be used in the classroom.

One last thought about this song: I was initially planning to have my daughter sing it, but she got strep throat just as I needed to record it. But as a result, I made very sure that the song was in a singable range for elementary and middle school kids. That makes it awfully high for me, but I'm willing to suffer a little for music and education!