Tehiyah students rock out with lunar samples

They are barely bigger than grains of sand, but the pebbles on display in Cliff Stoll’s 8th grade science class at Tehiyah Jewish Day School in El Cerrito are leaving students breathless with cosmic wonder.

That’s because the samples are moon rocks, brought back to Earth by Apollo astronauts more than 30 years ago. After Stoll made an inquiry, NASA agreed to loan the rocks to Tehiyah, and for three weeks students will be engaged in some serious lunacy.

Stoll says the samples “go back to the origin of the Earth. It’s rare for any [middle school] students to get lunar samples.” Though preserved in plastic casings, the rocks can easily be examined under a microscope.

Stoll says his students can learn a lot studying the rocks, some of which are more than 4 billion years old. But if the kids think the moon is too old to affect life on Earth, they had better think again.

“The moon is slowly moving away from us, and stealing angular momentum from Earth,” says the teacher. “It slows the Earth down a tiny bit, which has extremely long term effects on the Jewish calendar. The months are growing longer. What will happen in a billion years? You’ll have more days in the Jewish month.”

That doesn’t mean Stoll’s students will be celebrating nine days of Chanukah anytime soon. So in the meantime, they will just have to keep up with their teacher’s high expectations.

With a doctorate in astronomy, Stoll is one of those space scientists in the Carl Sagan mold. His enthusiasm for knowledge boils over like a lab beaker on a Bunsen burner.

“I assume the kids are smart, capable adults,” he says of his students. “I teach them freshman college physics, but I say, OK, you won’t need to know calculus and I take some of the trigonometry out.”

He also took out the textbook for the most part. Stoll wants his students to experience science rather than just read about it. He once took them to Albany Bowl so they could measure the kinetic energy of a bowling ball. Another time, he had them measure the speed of light right there in the classroom. “It’s real physics,” he says, “not downloading a Web page.”

One of Stoll’s biggest fans is Tehiyah head of school Steve Taback. “First-hand experience is absolutely the best way for kids to learn,” he says. “That’s Cliff’s approach. He’s creating an intense and playful environment. It’s very demanding, but the kids become so engaged.”

It’s all part of Tehiyah’s tradition of intellectual rigor, a tradition Stoll applauds. As an astrophysicist, he had been more accustomed to teaching graduate level astronomy. But with two kids of his own at Tehiya, he couldn’t say no when asked to join the faculty last year.

Stoll grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., the son of a Jewish mother and Catholic father. There was no religion in their home, but for Stoll the splendor of the cosmos provided more than enough fodder for spirituality. He became a planetary scientist, professor and author, eventually settling in Oakland with his wife and two children.

Beyond the “wow” factor, Stoll believes his students will gain real-world benefits by rocking out with moon dust.

“It connects us to an important historical event,” he says. “Fifteen years from now, when a couple of [the students] go into science and someone says ‘We know from lunar samples…,’ they will say, ‘Hey, I worked with those.’ They already have had an introduction to it.”

Grounded in the scientific method though he may be, Stoll is amazed at the impact working at Tehiyah has had on him.

“Guess who’s hanging around Netivot Shalom?” he asks with amusement, referring to the Conservative congregation in Berkeley. “Students were asking me about the origin of the solar system, asking me what was before the Big Bang. I said, ‘Go ask the rabbi.'”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.